Voters check in at a polling precinct in Madison, Miss., on Tuesday. (Rogelio V. Solis / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Just one week after an indecisive Super Tuesday, voters in two Deep South states could rewrite the story line of the 2012 presidential race.
The outcomes in Alabama and Mississippi are expected to be close, with any of three Republican candidates a potential winner in each state. (Hawaii has caucuses Tuesday night but the results won't be known until Wednesday in most of the country.)
But when the voting in Dixie is done, the GOP contest could look very different.
At the outset, the week-long Southern campaign shaped up as a conservative showdown: Rick Santorum versus Newt Gingrich in a very conservative and solidly Republican region (the last Democrat to carry either state in a presidential election was Jimmy Carter in 1976). Mitt Romney wasn't expected to do particularly well, having failed to inspire evangelical Christians and very conservative voters elsewhere.
But a near-even split down South between Santorum and Gingrich is changing all that -- creating an unlikely opening for Romney and a slew of intriguing scenarios. Here are several:
A front-runner sweep. Unthinkable, only a week ago, a pair of Romney wins is, now, at least within the realm of possibility. If it happens, he would take a big step toward wrapping up the nomination. Romney is unlikely to get even 40% of the vote in either state, but if he's lucky it will be enough to win. And that would erase one of the knocks on him: that the man favored to win the GOP nomination remains weak in the geographic heart of his party (as he rather oddly put it, it's an "away game" for him). A Southern sweep would send Romney into next Tuesday's competitive Illinois primary with a huge head of steam.
Even a single victory down South -- his first, if you don't count Florida -- would be a big help.
Gingrich on the bubble. The latest stretch of the primary season has been, to put it charitably, truly awful for the former House speaker. He's lost 17 of the last 18 contests, winning only his "home" state of Georgia. In the four-way competition with his GOP opponents, he finished dead last in 12 of those states and next-to-last in the other five. A pair of victories in Alabama and Mississippi would establish him as the Southern candidate (South Carolina was his only other win) and provide a rationale for him to go on.
Anything less than a Southern sweep, and it's hard to see how he credibly moves forward. His aides have said as much, though Gingrich has defiantly refused to agree, at least publicly. In the "super PAC" age, all it takes is one deep-pocketed supporter [in Gingrich's case, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson] to keep a dead man running. But if Newt is forced out, it would give Santorum what he craves: a clean shot at Romney.
Santorum's conundrum. For the former senator, an election day that once looked like a perfect opportunity to knock Gingrich from the race is suddenly looking much less propitious. Santorum could wind up falling short in both states, which would make it much more difficult for him to claim that conservative voters have made him the clear alternative to Romney. If he doesn't win, his best hope would be to bounce back quickly in the Missouri caucuses on Saturday, and muddle on. Santorum won Missouri's beauty-contest primary last month and should have the edge there.
A split decision. There could well be two winners Tuesday night, perhaps the likeliest outcome. Romney, for example, may take Mississippi, thanks to broad establishment support and the significant advantages he enjoys almost everywhere in money and organization. That would be a plus for him. Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman, may win next-door Alabama, though as mentioned above, it would hardly be everything he needs. And with backing from evangelical Christian churches, a Santorum surge can't be ruled out in either state.
Seldom, if ever, has the three-dimensional chess of this year's Republican campaign been more complex than it is on this deceptively simple-looking primary day. Three candidates. Two elections. And a multitude of possibilities with important implications for the Republicans, everything from an unexpected boost for the front-runner -- which could shorten the race -- to a slimmed-down field that pushes the endgame into May or June or beyond.
Original source: In Alabama and Mississippi primaries, expect the unexpected