Southern Wins Propel Rick Santorum Forward

Southern Wins Propel Rick Santorum Forward

By Erin McPike and Carl M. Cannon - March 14, 2012

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- With his two-state sweep of the Dixie Primary, Rick Santorum ensured that the Republican Party's long campaign of attrition in 2012 will continue. Mitt Romney had conceded last week that Mississippi and Alabama were "away games" for him, but they were far from Santorum's Pennsylvania home, too -- and he won both.

The biggest loser of the night was Newt Gingrich, who had predicted success in Tuesday’s primaries but couldn’t follow up his lone Super Tuesday victory -- in his home state of Georgia -- with a win even in the neighboring state of Alabama. Gingrich finished second in both Alabama and Mississippi, with Romney a close third. Ron Paul ran a distant fourth in both states.

Gingrich’s miscalculation was coupled by his decision -- alone among the four candidates -- to remain here in Alabama through the voting. When he and his wife came out to face the cameras and their disappointed followers, both attempted to make the most of it. Callista Gingrich warmed up the crowd by proclaiming, “Our only opponent is Barack Obama and we are committed to removing him from the White House.” She then introduced her husband as “the next president of the United States.”

For his part, the former House speaker began by ungrudgingly complimenting Santorum for his two wins, then spoke of the delegates he expected to pick up, before turning his speech to its true focal point: Trashing Romney as “a Massachusetts moderate” and the “hand-picked candidate of the elite media.” Gingrich also claimed that the rationale for Romney’s nomination had been undermined in the South, and reiterated his plans to take his case to the GOP convention in Tampa.

“I emphasize going to Tampa, because one of the things tonight proved is that the elite media’s effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed,” Gingrich said to cheers. “The fact is, in both states the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote. And if you’re the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a front-runner.”

Yet even many movement conservatives who agree with Gingrich’s handicapping are increasingly unlikely to continue viewing him as the horse they want to back.

“Newt has given it a great run, but Rick Santorum has earned a mano-a-mano shot at Mitt Romney,” unaligned Republican strategist Keith Appell said Tuesday night. “Santorum has demonstrated clear strength in the Midwest, West and South and he has earned the opportunity to take on Romney in a two-man race. In fact, it’s clear that conservatives across the country are sending a clear message to the Republican establishment: ‘Nothing is over until we decide it is.’ ”

If Gingrich over-promised and under-performed, Romney made miscalculations of his own. Right up until the election returns came in Tuesday night, the former Massachusetts governor’s aides were hinting to reporters that they believed a win in one of these states -- most likely Mississippi -- was within their grasp. Instead, the night ended with two third-place finishes.

Moreover, in a televised interview, Romney responded to a question from CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer about dubious claims made in a Santorum attack ad on Romney by saying that the former Pennsylvania senator was at “the desperate end of his campaign.”

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Carl M. Cannon is the Washington editor for RealClearPolitics.

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