Decision Day in the Deep South

Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi go to the polls today with a chance to alter the trajectory of the Republican primary.  Things get could get a lot clearer tonight or even more muddled.  The latest polling numbers from Public Policy Polling show that just about anyone can emerge the winner tonight, except, of course, Ron Paul.

If Mitt Romney can score a victory tonight in either state it will go a long way toward Romney finally shoring up enough support to close out the primaries and start rallying Republicans behind him.  So far, Romney has had a difficult time clinching the nomination, but a surprise win in the South could give him the boost he needs to finally silence his detractors and formally assume the mantle of the inevitable nominee.

If Rick Santorum sweeps both states tonight look for conservatives to step up and possibly try to urge Gingrich to drop out.  Two more wins tonight, in Gingrich’s backyard no less, and Santorum will have solidified his position as the conservative alternative to Romney.  It’s nearly impossible for Santorum to win enough delegates to clinch the nomination, but if he emerges today with more momentum and more wins he will continue to be a thorn in Romney’s side over the coming months.

Newt Gingrich can remain relevant tonight if he pulls off wins in his home region, but he will still find it hard to shake the label of the Southern candidate that can only win in the South.  Gingrich winning would probably help Romney’s cause since he would be assured of Gingrich and Santorum both staying in the race and splitting the conservative, anti-Romney vote moving forward.  It’s hard to say how much momentum Gingrich can capture with wins tonight, but he’s been counted out before only to come back strong again.  That said, it is unlikely that Gingrich could translate any momentum gained today to additional wins down the road.

The delegate count still points to Mitt Romney ultimately being the nominee, but it will be interesting to see what happens if Santorum can score two big wins tonight that force Gingrich out of the race.  A one-on-one match-up, leaving aside Ron Paul who will stay in no matter what, between Romney and Santorum would be an interesting race, and probably the last thing the Romney campaign wants right now.

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