Tuesday night's Republican primaries in Alabama and Mississippi will likely result in one of two major outcomes: Either Mitt Romney wins both votes and severely weakens his rivals' chances, or he doesn't and the race keeps going.
We know: This story line is getting a little stale. Once again, a night of primaries becomes a high-stakes affair for the Republican presidential hopefuls. Just like Florida, South Carolina, Michigan, all of Super Tuesday, or many of the other GOP contests this year, Tuesday's votes could change the course of the campaign.
Before tuning out the news and flipping to NCIS or Real Housewives of Orange County, note that Tuesday's primaries promise to be particularly interesting.
Gingrich Might Do Really Well
For one thing, polls indicate Mississippi and Alabama are going to be close races, and not just between Romney and Santorum. For the first time in a while, Gingrich has a chance to win in the South, which has provided the little success he has enjoyed so far (victories in South Carolina and Georgia, as well as a second-place finish in Florida).
A recent Public Policy Polling survey among Republican voters in Mississippi has Gingrich leading with 33 percent, followed by Romney at 31 percent and Santorum at 27 percent. According to an average of Alabama polls calculated by Real Clear Politics over the past week, Gingrich and Romney are in a near-tie at 28.5 percent and 28.3 percent, respectively, with Santorum not far behind in third at 25.8 percent.
Even if Gingrich doesn't win big, he shows no sign of giving up. Natalie Davis, a professor of political science at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama, said the former House of Representatives speaker is having the time of his life and lit up the crowd at a rally at the Alabama GOP forum, where she was Monday night.
I don't think he'll do poorly enough for either me or you, the media, to tell him what to do, Davis said, adding: If [Santorum or Gingrich] really wanted to stop Romney, if they really wanted to put someone who's on the value-voters side, [one of them] would have gotten out by now.
We're looking forward to the showdown between Santorum and Gingrich. Romney has been leading the GOP field with 454 delegates, well ahead of Santorum at 217 delegates and Gingrich at 107 (Ron Paul keeps soldiering on with 47 delegates). Still, Romney is far from the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination at the Republican National Convention in August, a sign that enough conservatives still see the former Massachusetts governor as a flip-flopping, health care-mandating politician. There's still opportunity for Santorum or Gingrich to emerge as the Romney alternative.
That's why the stakes are highest for Gingrich and Santorum. The former speaker and ex-senator from Pennsylvania hope to gain enough momentum to make the primary a head-to-head race with Romney all the way to Tampa. Santorum has admitted his only shot to the nomination is a brokered convention, so his (and Gingrich's) best strategy is to prevent Romney from sweeping up enough delegates to make that a reality. The question is: Who, if anyone, will fill that role?
What Does It Mean For Romney?
Whatever happens, Romney won't suffer too much. It will be great for him if he wins because it means the Michigan-born businessman, who described the Deep South as an away game, proves he can win over the most-conservative voters.
If he loses either Alabama or Mississippi, or both, poll numbers suggest Romney will have a respectable showing nonetheless.
What people need to understand is that in this Southern state, there is an old-fashioned Republican constituency with a business orientation, with an affluent suburban life. And those folks will vote for Mitt Romney, said Davis, the Alabama professor. He's not going to be blown away, whatever he says about cheesy grits and whether he says 'y'all.'
A loss in either state Tuesday night just means he'll have to continue looking over his shoulder as his rivals gain steam. Or eat more cheesy grits.