A Southern victory for Mitt Romney? Tuesday could be the charm.

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.

Keith Necaise/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney greets Alabama residents at a campaign event at The Whistle Stop Café in Mobile, Ala., Monday.

Mitt Romney celebrated his 65th birthday on Monday – and suggested to supporters in Alabama that a primary victory in the South would be the perfect birthday present.

“Thanks so much for giving me this birthday present. Hopefully, I can unwrap it tomorrow,” he told a crowd at the Whistle Stop restaurant in Mobile, Ala.

If Mr. Romney does score a victory on Tuesday in either Alabama or Mississippi, it will be a first for the former Massachusetts governor. Though he won in Florida in January, that state isn't considered a part of the cultural and political South (and he lost the more conservative Florida panhandle badly).

Despite Romney's struggles in that region, it's just possible he could get the birthday gift he's hoping for on Tuesday.

Right now, polls show him virtually tied with both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in Alabama. (The most recent poll from Public Policy Polling actually has Romney leading with 31 percent, compared with 30 percent for Mr. Gingrich and 29 percent for Mr. Santorum – but the differences are within the poll's margin of error.)

In Mississippi, polls are also showing a very close race. The latest PPP poll has Gingrich slightly ahead of Romney and Santorum (33 percent to 31 percent and 27 percent, respectively), and a Rasmussen poll conducted several days ago had Romney leading by 8 points.

A win in either state would be big for Romney, not so much because of the delegates at stake (between them, they have 90 delegates), but because of the symbolic victory of finally making an inroad into the South.

Romney himself poked fun at his fish-out-of-water character in Southern states – including total lack of familiarity with either the cuisine or activities like hunting. He told Alabama Republicans that, "I'm looking forward to going out and hunting with you sometime and you can actually show me which end of the rifle to point." He later joked that, "last night I was in Mississippi, by the way, and I had catfish for the second time. It was delicious, just like first time."

Romney also campaigned Monday with comedian Jeff Foxworthy, best known for his "you might be a redneck..." one-liners.

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 a blog noting the strong geographical trends in the primary voting so far this season, New York Times polling expert Nate Silver writes:

"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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