It’s now a two-man race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Rick Santorum’s sweep of the Alabama and Mississippi primaries has solidified the former Pennsylvania senator’s position as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney – and ensured that the GOP nomination race will extend long into the spring, if not all the way to the party convention in August.
The big question is whether Newt Gingrich of Georgia – who came in second in both primaries despite his Southern roots – will stay in the race or step aside to allow the non-Romney vote to consolidate. On Tuesday night, the former House speaker showed no sign he was ready to give up.
Another question is whether Mr. Romney, who failed to manage expectations for his performance in the Deep South, will shake up his campaign team in a bid to reassure donors. The Michigan-born former governor of Massachusetts had predicted he would win Alabama, even as he established that the Southern contests were an “away game” for him.
Romney’s losses were mitigated by victories in the Hawaii and American Samoa caucuses and the fact that all four of Tuesday’s contests will award delegates on a proportional basis. He came in a close third in Mississippi and Alabama, fewer than 3 percentage points behind Mr. Santorum in Mississippi and 5.5 points in Alabama.
The delegate math still favors Romney, a point he emphasized in a statement late Tuesday.
“I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight,” Romney said.
- In Mississippi, Santorum won 32.9 percent, Gingrich got 31.3, Romney got 30.3, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas got 4.4 percent.
- In Alabama, Santorum won 34.5 percent, Gingrich got 29.3, Romney got 29, and Congressman Paul got 5 percent.
- In Hawaii’s caucuses, Romney won convincingly with 45.4 percent, Santorum got 25.3 percent, Paul got 18.3 percent, and Gingrich got 11 percent.
- Totals for the American Samoa caucuses were not available at press time, though the Associated Press declared Romney the winner.
Out of 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination, Romney has 485, versus 246 for Santorum, 131 for Mr. Gingrich, and 47 for Paul, according to the Associated Press’s partial delegate count based on Tuesday’s results.
The drawn-out GOP nomination contest contains echoes of the Democratic race four years ago, in which Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton battled all the way to June. But the Republican race of 2012 is marked by a sharper ideological divide than the Democrats experienced. Santorum performs best among voters who self-identify as “very conservative,” evangelical, and anti-abortion, while Romney’s base is more moderate, less religious, higher-income voters.
The split conservative vote took some of the sparkle off Santorum’s victories and saved Romney from a major embarrassment.
“Half the voters in both Southern primaries branded Romney as ‘not conservative enough.’ If they’d only had one place to go, it might’ve been a Santorum or Gingrich romp. Instead, those voters divided between the two, by 44-39 percent in Alabama, 42-39 percent in Mississippi,” writes Gary Langer, pollster for ABC News.
“That was enough for Santorum to win in both states – but perhaps by closer margins than he may have wanted, given his efforts to cement the evangelical and very conservative segments of the GOP vote. This was their home base.”
Two major contests loom – Puerto Rico on Sunday and Illinois next Tuesday. If Romney underperforms in either, anxiety within the Republican establishment is likely to escalate. The possibility that Santorum arrives at the Republican convention with enough delegates to muscle the nomination away from Romney could be devastating to the GOP’s chances in November. Romney said as much in an interview on Fox News Monday.
“Look, if we go all the way to a convention, we would be signaling our doom in terms of replacing President Obama,” Romney said. “We need to select someone to become our nominee, get that person nominated, and get focused on President Obama, and get him out of the White House.”
The assumption built into Romney’s assertion is that that “someone” would be him. But for many energized conservatives, that “someone” should be Santorum. In an interview on CNN Tuesday night, the Pennsylvanian’s senior campaign adviser, John Brabender, drove home that point.
"I think it's time that conservatives and tea party supporters understand that they've got to rally around one candidate," Mr. Brabender said. "That's how you stop a moderate like Mitt Romney like from ever getting the nomination."