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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

February 13 Primaries: What's at Stake?

Today are the Alabama, Mississippi, Hawaii, and American Samoa primary contests. The American Samoa has already voted, and Romney won.

That leaves the three US states. There is little polling information out of Hawaii (20 delegates), with the last one completed back in October, which is a lifetime (or two) ago for these candidates. Ron Paul is thought to have a shot, and Rick Santorum sacrificed a daughter, but I expect Romney to continue his dominance of the Pacific territories.

Regardless, the two states everyone is watching today are Alabama (50 delegates) and Mississippi (40). Romney has an infamous disconnect with the southern and midwestern parts of the country, which just happen to hold the conservative base of the party. Indeed, the only southern or midwestern state Romney has won is Virginia, and that was likely because Gingrich and Santorum never saw the ballot. Aside from that, Romney has lost Iowa, South Carolina, Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Dakota. With a losing list like that, one can understand why Romney continues to be dogged by negative press and conservative critics.

How might he stop those voices? By winning one or both of today's Alabama and Mississippi primaries. Of course, as with any primary these days, these contests are even more important to his rivals, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

Gingrich needs to show he belongs in this race. With ubiquitous calls for him to drop out, if he can go 4-0 across the Deep South (by pairing these two with his resounding wins in South Carolina and Georgia), he will quiet those calls. It's hard to argue that he's irrelevant if he's undefeated with the southern base of the party and states like Louisiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, and massive Texas with its 155 delegates remain. Gingrich has a path to 400 delegates, and since his goal is to get to a convention, the possibility of walking that path and limiting Romney to under 1,144 is enough to keep him in the race. Therefore, only one win today will keep him in the race. But if he loses both? You might see a Gingrich exit before Saturday's Missouri Caucus, so as not to hurt Santorum.

Santorum, meanwhile, desperately needs to dig into Romney's large delegate lead before the rest of the party sees a Romney nomination as inevitable. That means defeating him in the south, where Romney is most vulnerable. Gingrich's presence, of course, is a nuisance. In the latest Alabama and Mississippi polls, Gingrich's southern base is clearly not deserting him. In the last PPP poll, the three candidates are running in a statistical three-way tie in Alabama, while Mississippi is almost as tight, with Gingrich polling at 33 percent to Romney's 31 and Santorum's 27. (Rasmussen polls support the razor tight races.) Thus, despite Romney polling rather weakly for a frontrunner, the Gingrich/Santorum split of conservative allegiances is keeping Romney a contender in both states.

Clearly, the results from Mississippi and Alabama have several combinations. All we know is that Ron Paul will finish in fourth. Any of the three candidates can win, and any of the three can finish in third. With all these possibilities, I conjured eight scenarios and their ramifications:

Scenario 1a: Gingrich wins both, Santorum is the runner up in both. The story: Romney's chances for 1,144 take a minor but very real hit, and we look to the calendar to see if Romney has a path to 1,144 without strong results in the remaining south. Gingrich stays in and sees a bump in polls across the board. He positions himself for wins in a handful of future southern states.

Scenario 1b: Gingrich wins both, Romney is the runner up in both. The Romney team celebrates as all candidates march on with a greatly weakened Santorum.

Scenario 1c: Gingrich wins both, Romney and Santorum split the runners up. The Romney team celebrates as all candidates march on with a weakened Santorum.

Scenario 2a: Gingrich wins one, Santorum wins the other. Gingrich has justification for staying in. Santorum claims to be winner between the two "contenders," especially if he finishes second in the other primary. If Gingrich and Santorum lock Romney out from a top 2 in both states, this primary is going into May.

Scenario 2b: Gingrich wins one, Romney the other. Romney shows he can compete in a southern state. Santorum is wounded, with two third places finishes being particularly painful.

Scenario 3: Santorum and Romney split victories. Gingrich drops out if he has two third places. A split goes to Romney in the spin room, as he finally won in the south.

Scenario 4: Romney sweeps. The primary's finished. Everyone stays in, though.

Scenario 5: Santorum sweeps. Gingrich drops out, regardless where he finishes. He lends his full-throated support to Santorum, who will go on to win Missouri in a blowout. The reeling Romney Campaign empties out the treasury to squash Santorum's third surge, but it might not be enough this time. We could be on our way to a brokered convention. (Though it's actually 1a that gives the best chance for a brokered convention.)

My prediction: 2b.

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