It's All Politics
6:01 am
Wed March 14, 2012

Santorum Gains Momentum As GOP Slog Continues

Originally published on Wed March 14, 2012 10:50 am

Rick Santorum won two Southern state GOP presidential primaries Tuesday, embarrassing Mitt Romney who had predicted he'd take one.

Second-place finisher Newt Gingrich vowed to fight on to Tampa, tag-teaming Romney along with Santorum. The "three-way dynamic," as he put it, is a winner for Gingrich and, perhaps, his dream of deal-making at the convention, and for Romney, too, whose Southern result could have been much worse if he'd been posting up against Santorum alone.

As it stands, with the tight top-three finish in both states, and with Romney winning Tuesday's contests in Hawaii and American Samoa, and the delegates doled out proportionally, he'll remain comfortably ahead in that important count.

But let's take a look at some of the starker realities that emerged Tuesday for delegate front-runner Romney, and the contours of a race still taking shape — despite efforts by the elites and the establishment, in Gingrich world — to coronate the former Massachusetts governor.

Money Can Buy ... Something

Exit polls continue to show that Republican voters, even those in conservative strongholds like Mississippi and Alabama where eight in 10 identified themselves as evangelical, view Romney as having the best shot at defeating Obama in the fall. And he scores high on how voters think he'll handle their top issue, the economy.

But that, as well as Romney's overwhelming money advantage, and the slew of endorsements he picked up before Tuesday's primaries, still weren't enough to temper the perception, according to the exit polls, that he's not conservative enough, and lacks empathy.

Consider this: Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney superPAC, spent more than $2 million in advertising in Mississippi and Alabama. Exit polls found that an overwhelming majority of voters in both states said advertising played an important role in their decision. But in Mississippi, for example, 35 percent of those voters went with Romney, and 33 percent with Santorum.

The Red, White and Blue Fund, a pro-Santorum superPAC, spent just under $380,000 in the Southern states.

Santorum's Opportunity, and Limits

Santorum echoed Gingrich's dismissal of Romney the Inevitable.

"He spent a whole lot of money against me," he said at his election night rally, "for being inevitable."

An electorate stocked with white, evangelical Christians is Santorum's sweet spot, and in both states a wide majority told exit pollsters that they believe abortion should be illegal.

But it's Santorum's strength among those voters — and Republican voters through the Midwest — that may begin to fade as the contests move to states like Illinois, which holds its primary next week, and Maryland, Wisconsin and even his home state of Pennsylvania.

A recent Chicago Tribune GOP primary poll had Romney at 35 percent, Santorum at 31 percent and Gingrich a distant third in Illinois.

Illinois may present Santorum a real head-to-head with Romney, and with a more urban electorate where Romney has consistently performed better, where the advertising market is more expensive, and where his superPAC has already committed to spending nearly a million dollars. Romney's Mormonism may not be the sleeper issue there that it may have been in the evangelical South.

Still In Flux

As Tuesday night wore on, and before the final tallies were in, some pundits were suggesting that it might be time for Republicans to start hoisting themselves on the Romney bandwagon.

By night's end, that conversation had changed. With Gingrich appearing to be all in despite GOP pundit predictions that the "party guy" won't stay in the race as a spoiler, Santorum gaining momentum from the South if not a big delegate win, and Romney's common-person connection difficulties again on display, the slog continues.

And, for now, that slog still seems to hold the promise of a Gingrich entrance of epic proportions in Tampa. Now that's a prospect the elite media might really rally around.

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