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Mitt Romney's Southern defeat

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Mitt Romney's Southern defeat

Big losses in Miss. and Ala. stall the 'inevitable' nominee

  • Mitt Romney
    BU Interactive News/FlickrMitt Romney

BOSTON — It could have been the awkward “y’alls” that did it, or the forced references to “cheesy grits,” but the South roundly rejected former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Tuesday night, giving him third-place showings in both Alabama and Mississippi.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was the big winner, placing first in both states. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich came in second.

Ron Paul was a distant fourth in all races, maintaining his status as an occasionally amusing distraction, but far from a serious contender.

Romney did win handily Hawaii and swept American Samoa, but neither provided much consolation for a candidate whose aura of inevitability is melting away like ice cream in the Alabama sunshine.

“If you’re the frontrunner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a frontrunner,” said Gingrich, in a combative speech following he announcement of the results.

Gingrich, who is from Georgia, had hoped to win in at least one of the Southern states, and his narrow losses to Santorum have given him more the air of a spoiler than that of an up-and-coming candidate.

Santorum’s supporters argue, with some justification, that the former senator from Pennsylvania would have a much easier time pulling ahead of Romney if the race boiled down to just two contenders.

But Gingrich has vowed to fight on until the Republican National Convention in August. His strategists point out that the halfway mark in the primary season has not yet been reached — an almost unbelievable piece of news for those who have been following what appears to be an endless series of stalemates.

It has been an eternity since Iowa, the abortive straw poll in January that had originally billed Romney as the winner, only to have a recount hand the victory to Santorum a few weeks later. While Gingrich briefly took the position of chief rival following his win in South Carolina in late January, the contest has really been between Romney and Santorum all along.

Romney was clearly rattled by the losses in Mississippi and Alabama; for the first time in this drawn-out campaign he skipped his post-primary speeches.

Instead, he left it to the spin-doctors and green-eyeshade folks to resurrect his candidacy.

“I don’t think anyone expected Mitt to win in Alabama or Mississippi,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior advisor to the Romney campaign, speaking to CNN Tuesday evening. “This was an away game.”

That might have been part of the problem: Romney treated the South, a traditional Republican stronghold, a bit like a foreign, and somewhat hostile, land. As in previous appearances, he had a hard time convincing voters that he was one of them.

His attempts to gain local credibility with his repeated “I like grits” speeches fell flat, and he did not even stay in the South to watch the results, flying off to New York City for fundraising.

But Fehrnstrom refused to acknowledge that Romney had suffered a serious setback.

“It’s a delegate contest,” he said. “Our goal was to take one-third of the delegates, and we will do that.”

Romney did pick up some delegates Tuesday night, thanks to the proportional allocation system that has been the rule in most Republican contests so far.

In fact, at this point he is doing better as the third-place finisher than the supposed winner.

Out of the 110 delegates at stake in Tuesday’s four races, Romney got 31, Santorum 29, and Gingrich 24, according to the Associated Press. There are still 26 up for grabs: They will be allocated at a later date.

Romney is still far ahead in the overall delegate count, with 485 to his name, as opposed to Santorum’s 246, Gingrich’s131, or Paul’s 47. But none of the candidates is within spitting distance of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

Polls have consistently shown that Republican voters believe Romney to be the most electable candidate — they think he has the best chance of beating President Barack Obama in November.

But many consider him too moderate, not passionate enough about their social agenda. Santorum’s resolutely conservative positions on faith and morality play well with the more extreme right wing of the Republican Party, and these are the voters who go to the polls during the primaries.

Tuesday’s contests, like most of the primaries so far, featured very low turnout. Mississippi had fewer than 300,000 votes cast, out of more than 1.5 million registered voters. In Alabama, with more than 3 million registered voters, fewer than 600,000 voters went to the polls.

Over the next few weeks, contests in Missouri, Illinois, Louisiana, the District of Columbia and Maryland will doubtless provide more drama and excitement to the Republican battle. But it is unlikely that they will bring clarity to the race.

Judging by the attitude of the candidates and the mood of the voters, the fight for the nomination will be a cliffhanger right up until Tampa.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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