For Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the Deep South primaries in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday will be a race for conservative primacy in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination. Unless one of them decisively puts the other away, however, Mitt Romney could be the big winner no matter where he finishes.
While Romney, the establishment front-runner, is counting on a growing sense of inevitability that he will be the nominee, Alabama and Mississippi are two of the last, best chances for Santorum and Gingrich to make their case against each other.
In temperament and tone, Gingrich has an easier sell in the South: He can “talk Southern” in a way that Santorum can’t. But his personal baggage could be a significant stumbling block among the family-values voters.
This is particularly true when that record is held up against Santorum’s personal story as a devoted husband and father of seven.
Gingrich has tried to cast Santorum as a bit player in the 1990s Republican revolution that Gingrich led, and in a region where unions are deeply unpopular, the Gingrich campaign has tried to cast Santorum as a pawn of big labor.
Santorum expressed hope on Thursday that he might be able to knock Gingrich out of the race within a week.
“If we can finish first or second” in all three primary contests in the next week, Santorum told reporters during a stop in Alabama, that would “hopefully get the race down to two candidates.”