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Election Watch: The Romney-Santorum Fight Continues

By my reckoning, Mitt Romney lost his fourth opportunity yesterday to all but end the GOP presidential nominating contest (previously once after New Hampshire, once after Nevada, and once after Michigan). Had he won in Alabama and Mississippi, as much of the commentariat predicted and several polls suggested might happen, he would have banished the “Mitt can’t win in the South” meme, killed off Gingrich’s southern-based campaign, and left Santorum gasping for oxygen. But it was not to be, and now Santorum may have the long-awaited one-on-one contest with Romney as, finally, the “conservative alternative to Mitt” that so many opinion-leaders and voters alike have been seeking for more than a year.

Mechanically, Santorum won these two states in a fairly predictable way: slightly edging out regional favorite son Newt Gingrich among evangelical (more than 80 percent of the primary electorate in Mississippi, and 75 percent in Alabama) and “very conservative” voters, and holding Romney to his customary strongholds of urban centers and more moderate Republicans. As is usually the case, Santorum outperformed his pre-primary poll standings, and overcame a very large financial disadvantage. Romney and his super PAC outspent Team Santorum 7-1 in Alabama and 5-1 in Mississippi; Gingrich also outspent Santorum.

Aside from the lost opportunity of a clinching victory, Romney is now forced to make his pitch to donors and GOP elites strictly on the basis of his slow but steady accumulation of delegates despite his mediocre record against expectations in high-profile primaries. His case was again buttressed late last night as Romney won caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa. Mitt’s delegate haul for the night is estimated at 40, compared to Santorum’s 37. For his part, Santorum needs to keep accumulating wins, and theoretically should have a good opportunity in caucuses this Saturday in Missouri, where he scored a decisive win over Romney back in February in a non-binding “beauty contest” primary—as the only candidate to really campaign. Puerto Rico holds caucuses on Sunday, and Romney—who did very well among Puerto Rican voters in Florida—should win there. But the contest that will get the most attention, and might give Romney his fifth chance to reassert total control of the contest, will be next Tuesday in Illinois. He’s up in early polling there, and the state does not offer the kind of huge evangelical community that Santorum has relied on elsewhere. But it is a blue-collar state with economic problems, an environment not unlike Ohio’s and Michigan’s, where Santorum came very close to upset wins. And even before his Deep South wins yesterday, Santorum gained commitments from some well-known conservative fundraisers (including famed direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins) to help make him more competitive financially.

Meanwhile, Gingrich has so far refused to retire from the race. But if reports last night that Newt’s super PAC sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson has “written his last check” are accurate, then Gingrich is finished even if he keeps his campaign alive formally.

So we are facing another critical few days in the race that just won’t end. Pundits may differ on whether Romney’s difficulty in nailing down the nomination will ultimately matter, but as Politico’s Jonathan Martin brutally put it today in a summary of elite reaction:

[T]he establishment favorite needs to explain why, two-and-a-half months into the primary season, he can’t seem to put away underfunded rivals who are viewed by many in the party as general election disasters.

In downballot races yesterday, Republican incumbent House members won all their primaries in Alabama and Mississippi; Spencer Bachus, considered the most endangered, beat multiple opponents without a runoff (Alabama requires 50 percent plus one for nominations). In more startling news, Alabama’s infamous “Ten Commandments Judge,” Roy Moore, defeated two much better-financed opponents, including an appointed incumbent and a former state Attorney General, to win a majority and the GOP nomination for his old post as Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court. Moore has promised not to bring back the monument to the Decalogue that cost him his job after he defied a federal court order to remove it from his courtroom.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore


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