Could Santorum’s Southern Victories Be the Start of Something Big?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 14 2012 2:28 AM

The South Rises for Santorum

Even as Romney wins more delegates, he appears weaker with every contest.

Rick Santorum
Rick Santorum

Photograph by Sean Gardner/Getty Images.

Mitt Romney said Rick Santorum was at the "desperate end of his campaign," by which he apparently meant the winning end. The Pennsylvania senator won the primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. He is now the leading conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, though Newt Gingrich promised to take his fight all the way to the Republican convention. Mitt Romney, who came in third in both states, is approaching the qualities of some cursed mythological figure who gets stronger on the outside while his insides decay: With each contest, Romney gains delegates but appears to get weaker.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

In Alabama, Santorum won with 35 percent of the vote. Gingrich and Romney both earned 29 percent. In Mississippi, Santorum captured 33 percent of the ballots to Gingrich’s 31 percent and Romney’s 30 percent. The Republican presidential race is holding the pattern that first emerged on Super Tuesday: It remains a race of mathematics versus a movement. Though Romney lost the marquee contests of the evening, he was expected to do well in Hawaii and American Samoa, perhaps giving him the most delegates of any candidate for the evening. The math is still on his side: Romney has won more states, has more delegates, and hundreds of thousands more Republicans have voted for him.  But the momentum and energy of the night belonged to Santorum who continues to captivate the grassroots heart of the party. "Ordinary people across this country can defy the odds," said Santorum about the message of the evening and the message of his campaign. "This campaign is about ordinary folks doing extraordinary things, kinda like America."

Being president requires grit, perseverance, and drive and, by those qualities, Santorum has proven himself for the job. Romney once again vastly outspent him in the contests. Santorum also faced a persistent challenge from Newt Gingrich who was playing on the familiar ideological and cultural turf of the South. 

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Santorum won by capturing his normal mix of evangelical voters and strong conservatives, but his win wasn't rock solid. In Alabama, 36 percent of voters said defeating Barack Obama was their No. 1 priority, and only 15 percent said Rick Santorum was the best man for that job. Fifty-one percent believed Romney was best equipped to win in the general election. In Mississippi, 39 percent chose defeating Obama as the top quality they sought in a candidate, and Santorum lost by 24 points to Romney on that score, with only 22 percent of the voters picking him. In the same state, 49 percent said they thought Romney could defeat Obama. Half as many said the same of Santorum. In Alabama, when voters were asked who could best handle an international crisis, Santorum received the lowest marks of the three candidates with 21 percent to Romney's 28 percent and Gingrich's 40 percent. 

Santorum's argument for why he will take the convention by storm in Tampa, Fla., relies on his emerging position as the conservative juggernaut. But if the majority of voters have doubts that he can beat Obama or handle an international crisis, it will be hard for him to thunder into the convention as the obvious choice. 

The Romney campaign had hoped for a win in Mississippi and a strong showing in Alabama. This is the downside of lurching forward for the knockout punch; sometimes you land on your face. In reality, though, no one should have expected him to do well in these Southern states. The Republican voters that dominate Alabama and Mississippi are precisely the kind with whom he has the biggest problem winning—evangelicals and those who identify themselves as very conservative. Eighty-four percent of Mississippi voters identify themselves as evangelicals. On Tuesday, there may have been more religious conservatives in voting booths than you’ll ever find in church pews on Sunday.

Still, Mitt has a problem. As Newt Gingrich put it, "If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner." He has a point. Though both of Romney’s presidential campaigns have stressed the word strong in  speeches and television ads, he is increasingly being hounded by the opposite word: weak. Indeed, it may follow him all the way to Tampa. Bill Clinton managed to revive himself in 1992, but he was a natural politician and he had a personal story that more people found appealing. Mitt Romney can’t be both the Republican front-runner and the Comeback Kid.

The Santorum campaign wants Gingrich out of the race. Though Santorum’s bid remains fragile, he has consistently beaten Gingrich. He would have a better shot at beating Mitt Romney in future states if he was the only alternative, since he would win a larger share of Gingrich's voters (though he certainly wouldn't win all of them). "The time is now for conservatives to pull together," Santorum said in his victory speech, calling a two-man race the best chance to win the election. Gingrich, who is the weakest of the three candidates, boasted that he was the only one who could beat Obama in a debate, an argument he says will help him convince unbound delegates at the convention. It's a big long shot and Gingrich's rationale for staying in the Republican primary rests on soft logic. On Tuesday night, he boasted about his viability because, he said, he won delegates despite losing. It was precisely the same argument Romney made—and that Gingrich claimed revealed Romney as weak.

The next big test for Romney's long slog to the nomination comes in Illinois. It's a no-excuses state. The southern part of the state, which is rural and conservative, favors Santorum, but not so much that Romney can pretend it's like Alabama or Mississippi. He's got crucial advantages in the Chicago suburbs. Illinois is a state like Michigan or Ohio, where Romney's financial and organizational strength should give him the edge. If Santorum were to pull off a win, it would be a state where he could legitimately say he made inroads into the Romney base, something he has failed to do anywhere so far.  

By the end of the night, the best thing the Romney campaign could say came directly from  Obama’s campaign headquarters. Jim Messina, who is running the incumbent's re-election efforts sent out an email saying that according to a new poll, if the general election were held today, Obama would lose to Mitt Romney. The Romney campaign simply forwarded the email and asked donors to contribute.  Romney probably wishes that the election could be held today. If nothing else, it would mean he'd finally won the nomination.

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