WASHINGTON - Rick Santorum’s convincing wins in Tuesday’s Deep South double-header shook up the GOP presidential primary contest once again, highlighting front-runner Mitt Romney’s chronic weaknesses among conservatives while raising questions about Newt Gingrich’s ability to remain a major force in the nominating race.
The conservative underdog, Santorum can now lay greater claim to being the strongest challenger to Romney, who fell to 0-for-5 in the crucial southern region of the country. In January, South Carolina voters stifled Romney’s momentum after New Hampshire. Tennesseans gave Santorum a victory on Super Tuesday last week that once again showed Romney lacked appeal among white evangelical Christians.
Tuesday night’s results demonstrated that the Bible Belt is still unwilling to provide a spark for the Mormon from Harvard Business School and Yankee from Massachusetts.
Santorum’s twin victories represented the worst-case scenario for Romney. His campaign had hoped to pick up Mississippi, which would have given him a stronger claim to the sense of inevitability that has proved so elusive. A win for Gingrich in at least one of the states would have been the next-best scenario for Romney, because a fresh infusion of strength for the former House speaker would have ensured that he would continue to strip a share of conservative support away from Santorum. Over and over in the primary season, Romney has taken advantage of divided conservative support to win states and build his lead in delegates.
Adding two states to his column Tuesday, Santorum can now claim momentum across the South, as well as in the Midwest, where he has notched a string of victories. Demands will increase for Gingrich to bow out. If he does, that would give Santorum sole possession of the anti-Mitt title and pose fresh challenges for Romney.
But speaking to supporters Tuesday night, Gingrich vowed to stay in the race to the convention.
“Both conservative candidates got 70 percent of the vote,’’ Gingrich said. “If you’re the front-runner and you keep coming in third,’’ he said, referring to Romney, “you’re not much of a front-runner.’’
Given the modest size of his war chest and lack of organization, Santorum has massively overachieved in the primaries, tapping into deep conservative dissatisfaction with Romney.
If there is a consolation prize for the former Bay State governor, Romney came closer to a victory Tuesday in Mississippi than he has in any other Southern state.
Those modest gains were notable because heavy numbers of born-again Christians voted in the primaries, according to early exit polls. Four in five voters in Mississippi said they were evangelicals, and the candidates divided them roughly in thirds.
Romney’s campaign had banked on considerable numbers of Southerners wagering that the former Massachusetts governor is best positioned to dislodge President Obama.
“When you say conservative, there are all kinds of conservatives,’’ said Lieutenant Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama, chairwoman of Romney’s Alabama campaign. “It took our people a little while to ferret out all the information, but when they look at Mr. Romney, he’s the only one who has the ability to beat Obama in all states.’’
Exit polls said 40 percent of voters considered the ability to prevent a second Obama term the most important factor in their choice.
After failing to land knockout punches on Super Tuesday - or in Mississippi and Alabama - Romney’s campaign remains focused on grinding out small delegate victories - state by state, even territory by territory (think Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands) - with the expectation that Santorum and Gingrich will eventually capitulate.
Santorum Tuesday night vowed to continue a strong fight for the nomination, and mocked Romney’s claims to inevitability, questioning why Romney and his supporters have spent so many millions in a bid to bury Santorum. “We will compete everywhere. The time is now for conservatives to pull together,’’ he said.
With each passing week, Romney piles up more delegates, making it more difficult for Santorum to offer that argument, or for voters to accept it.
The next test for Romney and Santorum arrives almost immediately. Missouri is holding a caucus this week, with most precincts voting Saturday morning. Santorum won a strictly symbolic vote in Missouri on Feb. 7 - part of a trio of wins that day that blunted Romney’s momentum from Florida. Missouri awarded no delegates in that February vote, but 52 delegates are at stake in Saturday’s caucus, which is expected to have a low turnout. There has been just a smattering of campaign advertising on television in advance of the caucus.
“It certainly is not going to motivate anyone to go out on St. Patrick’s Day morning,’’ said David B. Robertson, a political science professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It’s going to be the real committed, dyed-in-the-wool people who show up.’’
That could give Santorum an advantage among dedicated religious conservatives. But Missouri’s establishment Republicans are lined up behind Romney. These are well-organized moderates who are still called Danforth Republicans, in the tradition of former senator John Danforth.
Romney campaigned yesterday in Kirkwood, the sort of moderate GOP, wealthy suburb where he has won the most support around the country. He also went to Kansas City.
He told voters in Kansas City that, as Alabama and Mississippi voters headed to the polls, he hoped to win at least a third of the delegates at stake in those two states.
“And if that’s the case, why, that inches us closer to the magic number,’’ he said, referring to the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. “This is all about getting delegates.’’
While that argument is not especially inspirational, it’s certainly logical. In the St. Louis suburbs, for instance, it could counter the vote Santorum will probably win in Missouri’s 100 rural counties.
“You would have to be screwing around with Santorum math to think he has a realistic chance,’’ said Kenneth Warren, a political science professor at Saint Louis University. “There’s not much room for these conservative candidates to make their move any more.’’
Christopher Rowland can be reached at email@example.com