Santorum-Gingrich Divide Could Help Romney in Deep South

Photographer: Julie Denesha/Getty Images

Rick Santorum at a campaign stop on March 7, 2012 in Lenexa, Kansas. Close

Rick Santorum at a campaign stop on March 7, 2012 in Lenexa, Kansas.

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Photographer: Julie Denesha/Getty Images

Rick Santorum at a campaign stop on March 7, 2012 in Lenexa, Kansas.

With Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich each seeking to spur their candidacies with wins in next week’s Alabama and Mississippi primaries, a vote split between the pair could mainly benefit Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney.

As Romney completed a two-day foray into the two states, an American Research Group poll of likely voters in Mississippi’s primary released yesterday showed Gingrich running ahead and Romney a close second, while Santorum trailed in third place.

Gingrich had 35 percent, followed by Romney at 31 percent. Santorum had 20 percent and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas 7 percent. A similar Gingrich-Santorum divide could help Romney in neighboring Alabama.

“The result may be to split the conservative vote, allowing Romney to win one or both,” said Rogan Kersh, associate dean at New York University’s Wagner School. “Such an outcome could lead to furious finger-pointing among evangelicals and other hard-core conservatives, many of whom adopt an ‘anybody but Romney’ outlook.”

Romney campaign officials, following his six wins in the 10 contests held March 6 in which the vote was completed, had viewed the March 13 races in Mississippi and Alabama as unfriendly turf for the former Massachusetts governor. Romney characterized the southern primaries as “a bit of an away game” in a March 8 radio interview in Birmingham, Alabama.

Strong showings in the votes are essential for Santorum to keep his position as Romney’s main challenger, and for Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker, to keep his campaign viable.

Two-Man Race

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said his goal is to have the Republican race become a two-person contest following the Alabama and Mississippi primaries.

“Hopefully after this Tuesday, this will be a two-person race, and we can get down to business of deciding whether we want a conservative or a moderate to go up against” President Barack Obama, Santorum said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend.

As yesterday’s poll indicates, though, Romney might get the major boost from the approaching votes.

“This is what Romney is hoping for, especially in Mississippi where a strong Republican machine can help him,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Romney has the backing of Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant.

‘Most Organized’

“We are the most organized campaign in Mississippi,” said Austin Barbour, a Romney national finance chairman and nephew of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. “We’re an underdog, but we’re a fighting underdog.”

In Alabama, Romney backers include former Governor Bob Riley and state House Speaker Mike Hubbard.

In appearances in Mississippi and Alabama yesterday, Romney made no mention of the latest U.S. Labor Department report of a 227,000 increase in jobs in February -- greater than forecast -- and gave Obama no credit for improvements in the economy.

“The president has made more than a few mistakes; he’s made almost all mistakes,” he told a crowd estimated by police at 500 in Tarrant, Alabama, at a tractor company.

At a rally earlier of about 300 people in the Mississippi capital of Jackson, he greeted the crowd in the region’s vernacular. “Morning, y’all,” he said.

He added: “I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits. Delicious!”

Challenging Obama

Targeting Obama, he said the president has failed to improve the U.S. economy, is responsible for a rise in gasoline prices, and oversaw an increase in the national debt.

“If someone’s looking for the things this president has done wrong, it’s a long, long, long list,” Romney said at the town-hall meeting in the Mississippi Farmers Market on the road to the state capitol in Jackson. “This president has not succeeded. This president has failed, and that’s why we’re going to get rid of him in 2012.”

The Labor Department report released yesterday also adjusted the job-growth figure for January to 227,000, more than originally estimated. Also, the unemployment rate for February held at the previous month’s 8.3 percent.

Santorum in Kansas

In Topeka, Kansas, where Santorum traveled after starting yesterday in Mobile, Alabama, he depicted both Romney and Obama as unacceptable to conservatives.

“We already have one president who doesn’t tell the truth to the American people,” Santorum said, according to the Associated Press. “We don’t need another. Governor Romney reinvents himself for whatever the political occasion calls for.” Kansas conducts caucuses today.

Santorum, as he has throughout the campaign, criticized the health-care overhaul enacted in Massachusetts when Romney was governor. It included a requirement that citizens buy insurance, a central element of the federal health-care overhaul Obama pushed through Congress in 2010.

The Gingrich campaign held a conference call for reporters yesterday with Alabama state Senate Majority Leader J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner and former U.S. Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire to attack Santorum’s record. Waggoner characterized Santorum as a “big-union Republican,” and said his record of supporting labor as a senator from Pennsylvania would cost him in Alabama.

While Santorum supporters have urged Gingrich to quit the race to consolidate the anti-Romney vote, the former House speaker told AP in an interview that he would stay in the race regardless of the March 13 results.

‘Going to Tampa’

“I think there’s a fair chance we’ll win,” said Gingrich, who is scheduled to spend today in Alabama before returning to Mississippi tomorrow. “But I just want to set this to rest once and for all. We’re going to Tampa,” the site of the 2012 Republican convention.

Romney and the political action committee supporting him, Restore Our Future, have dominated the airwaves in the two states, spending $1.4 million in them through March 8, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG.

That compares with $22,760 for the pro-Santorum Red White and Blue Fund PAC and $235,570 for the pro-Gingrich PAC, Winning Our Future. The Gingrich campaign said it would also spend $207,000 on the two races.

Delegates

Alabama will send 50 delegates and Mississippi 40 to the Republican National Convention where the party will nominate a candidate in August, awarding delegates on a proportional basis.

With 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, Romney has 421, according to AP, followed by Santorum with 181, Gingrich 107 and Paul 47.

The other remaining Republican candidate, Paul, has set his sights on doing well in Kansas, where he was to visit some caucus sites today.

Romney continues to lead in Wyoming’s caucuses, which began on March 6 and end today. With 30 percent of precincts reporting, Romney had 54 percent of the vote, followed by Santorum with 29 percent. An uncommitted slate was running third, with 14 percent.

The American Research Group survey showing Gingrich leading in Mississippi was conducted March 7 through March 8 and carries a possible 4 percentage point margin of error.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Birmingham, Alabama, at jsalant@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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