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Southern primaries preview: Romney lead puts pressure on Gingrich, Santorum

More appears to be at stake Tuesday for Gingrich and Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama. For the very Northern Romney (despite his talk of grits), a win in either state would be pure gravy.

By Staff writer / March 12, 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters who braved the rain during a campaign stop at the Whistle Stop Café, Monday, in Mobile, Alabama.

John David Mercer/AP

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Mitt Romney’s official campaign slogan is “Believe in America.” But unofficially, at least for the primaries, it might as well be “Divide and Conquer.”

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On the eve of the next round of nominating contests – Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and caucuses in Hawaii – that’s the name of the game for the Republican presidential frontrunner.

And as long as both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich remain in the race, dividing the “not-Romney” vote, the former Massachusetts governor is well-positioned to build on his lead in the delegate count and head into the Tampa party convention in August with the most delegates, if not the majority.

Polls of Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi show a three-way dead heat. But the stakes for each candidate are distinctly different. Former Speaker Gingrich must win at least one of the two, or face serious questions about his rationale for staying in the race, analysts say. As a former longtime congressman from Georgia, the South is his home turf. The only two contests he has won are South Carolina and Georgia, and if his campaign is to rebound once again, Alabama and Mississippi are as likely venues as any.

Former Senator Santorum, a champion of social conservatism, also has some purchase in the South, despite his Pennsylvania roots. He won the Super Tuesday primary in Tennessee, and a victory in Alabama and/or Mississippi would show that his appeal ranges further into the South.

For Mr. Romney, the March 13 contests have more upside than down. He’s already expected to win the Hawaii caucuses, and if he can also eke out a victory in even one of the Southern primaries, that would be a coup. The very Northern Romney has tried to connect with voters in Mississippi and Alabama with a little self-deprecating humor – working “y’all” into his patter and talking about “cheesy grits” – but, as in other states, his best argument may still be that he fares best against President Obama in polls.

“It’s likely to be a long night,” says Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who has worked on campaigns in the South. “If Romney wins one, this could wind down. If he wins both that might be just short of historic.”

Going forward, Romney’s best “firewall” is Gingrich’s ego, Mr. O’Connell says.

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