Rick Santorum yet again proved the naysayers wrong with a stunning double in the heart of Dixie to add to his weekend victory in Kansas. If he wasn’t before, the former senator is now the undisputed challenger to Romney. Of course, the Deep South was never fertile ground for the Romney campaign. Approximately eight out of ten voters in both states describe themselves as evangelical, hardly familiar members of the Romney coalition. In finishing third in both, however, some talking heads are yet again highlighting that Romney “can’t seal the deal” with the base, despite only days before claiming that the contests were entirely unwinnable.
Ever since Newt Gingrich’s rambling tirade after the Nevada caucuses, the former speaker has repeatedly stated that he would get back into the race through pursuing a “southern strategy”, picking off states in the old Confederacy by starting with Georgia and culminating with a thumping victory in delegate rich Texas. In losing to Santorum – a candidate who awkwardly struggled to think up any ties to the South – Gingrich has fallen far short. The former speaker is now in an increasingly perilous position.
As long as Sheldon Adelson is signing off on the cheques, money for Gingrich won’t be a problem. But the Gingrich campaign now has the appearance of a lost cause. From now on, every question he fields from the media regarding policy, he’ll receive ten questions on why he’s not dropping out. Santorum will point to Mississippi and Alabama and claim that if Gingrich’s supporters could rally behind a single candidate, they could defeat Romney. And yet, with his ego, Gingrich may feel that bowing out to Santorum, a former senator who lost his re-election by some 18 points, is beneath him.
The headlines on Tuesday certainly pointed to an impressive one-two punch for Santorum, but that’s all they were, headlines. This contest is ultimately a game of numbers. In the past week, Santorum may have won some races, but Romney’s presence in every state and territory has paid dividends in the pursuit of delegates. The frontrunner not only emerged on Wednesday morning with more delegates than Santorum, but increased his pool of delegates throughout the week. The Romney campaign will continue to roll out the message that not only is the frontrunner the best prepared to defeat Barack Obama, but that he’s also the only candidate who can now mathematically sew up the nomination before the convention. Santorum and Gingrich will struggle to dispute this.
There will still be contests that Santorum – and for that matter, Gingrich – can win to halt Romney’s momentum, but they are increasingly running on a message of obstruction: that they are only in the race to force a convention vote and stop Romney. Illinois is already being billed as a must-win for Romney, another “Michigan” or “Ohio”. A victory in the land of Lincoln would not just increase Romney’s runaway delegate lead, but highlight that despite his Dixie double, Santorum – like Gingrich – is still fighting a lost cause.
Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt