A Southern victory for Mitt Romney? Tuesday could be the charm. (+video)
With Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum splitting the conservative vote, polls put Mitt Romney right in the thick of it in both Alabama and Mississippi.
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But all his self-deprecating humor aside, the South has been elusive terrain for Romney. His identity as a former Massachusetts governor and a Mormon have made it harder for him to connect with many conservative and Evangelical voters – or to convince them of his conservative credentials.
So how is he now on the verge of a possible win (or even two wins) in Deep South territory?
His biggest help seems to be coming from his rivals. Neither Gingrich nor Santorum has emerged as the strong Romney alternative in the region, and as a result, the votes of more conservative Republicans who don't want Romney may be split.
Gingrich's only two wins to date have been in Georgia (his home state) and South Carolina, and it's the one region he's been able to compete solidly in. Santorum, who trails Romney in the delegate tally 217 to 454 (compared with Gingrich's 107), may be Romney's closest competitor, but his inability to convince Gingrich to drop out has made it tough for him to amass the votes he needs, even in more conservative states.
If Gingrich fails to score wins in Tuesday, his justification for remaining in the race will become even murkier – but he has vowed that he's not leaving anytime soon.
And the Gingrich-Santorum split has left a solid opening for Romney in territory that until recently has seemed almost impossible for him.
"In the Republican primaries, if geography is destiny as much as demography is, then Alabama, which votes on Tuesday, could be an especially interesting test case. It borders Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, which are states carried by Mr. Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Mr. Romney respectively (although Mr. Romney lost most counties in the Florida panhandle region, which borders Alabama). Perhaps fittingly, polls show a virtual three-way tie in Alabama thus far."
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