Politics & Policy

Southern Discomfort

Newt Gingrich speaks at Mississippi State University, March 9, 2012.
Gingrich faces a critical test down south.

More than a dozen years after leaving the House, where he represented the Atlanta suburbs for two decades, Newt Gingrich returns to the Deep South this week for a critical Dixie test.

Ninety delegates are at stake; more than that, Gingrich needs a pair of victories to remain a viable contender. But winning Alabama and Mississippi will be difficult.

#ad#Polls in both states show Gingrich in a strong position, but he is not necessarily the front-runner. According to Rasmussen, Mitt Romney leads in Mississippi, and in Alabama Gingrich barely leads Rick Santorum. Gingrich and his allies, however, are confident that they can survive.

“This is a home game,” says Bob Walker, a senior Gingrich adviser. Romney, he reminds me, recently told an Alabama radio show that this week’s primaries will be an “away game” for him.

In contrast, Walker says, the former House speaker considers the South to be friendly territory. “It was an early decision inside of the campaign to play here,” he says. Gingrich won the South Carolina primary in January and the Georgia primary earlier this month. Those two wins, Walker says says, set up Gingrich for a third South-fueled shot at national contention.

“We knew this would be a long campaign, so we created firewalls,” Walker says. “Those primary wins have kept us credible. We had a few bad months, but we’ve picked up delegates.”

And to certain extent, Walker is right. Gingrich’s  southern strategy has kept him in the hunt. But it has been an imperfect calculation. While he has persevered, Gingrich’s determination to pour his cash into southern states limited his reach in February’s Midwestern caucuses.

“We underestimated Santorum’s strength,” Walker admits. “We certainly underestimated the impact of those three states where Santorum didn’t win delegates” but did make headlines.

Now, the two leading anti-Romney conservative favorites will clash near Gingrich’s home turf. Gingrich’s challenge is not only to beat Romney but also to halt Santorum’s rise.

“If Gingrich can’t win in the South, it’s unclear where he’ll find momentum,” says Ford O’Connell, a GOP consultant who worked on former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour’s 2007 reelection campaign. “It’s his base. Santorum has appeal, but he and Romney do not speak  southern.” The pressure on Gingrich to impress is intense.

Over the weekend, Gingrich told his supporters that the stakes are high. “It’s a big deal,” he said at a campaign rally. “By next Wednesday, this totally wild, roller-coaster race [could] be reset one more time.”

Indeed, after a tough month, watching from afar as Santorum soared, Gingrich sees an opening, a chance to cast his candidacy as the best alternative to Romney. At almost every stop, he argues that he is not running a  southern campaign but leading a broader movement for conservative change.

One related Gingrich gambit — hammering President Obama on energy and kick-starting a national movement to bring down gasoline prices — appears to be working. During speeches, Gingrich repeatedly tells supporters to post “Newt = $2.50 gas” on their Facebook and Twitter pages. Gingrich has earned widespread coverage, and the ire of Democrats, for his assertion.

“He’s a Fort Benning boy, a Columbus guy,” says Representative Lynn Westmoreland (R., Ga.), a Gingrich supporter. But  southern voters, he tells me, are identifying with more than Gingrich’s Peach State roots. “They don’t like all that tap dancing around,” he chuckles, reflecting on the rest of the field, and “Newt is out there, articulating a clear message that’s resonating.”

#page#Gingrich’s Alabama chairman, state senator Jabo Waggonner, agrees. “We were in Mobile on Friday night, and there were 900 people,” he says, many of them were familiar with Gingrich’s online efforts. “If he wins these two on Tuesday, it’ll be the beginning of a surge.”

#ad#Internal polling data reflects that optimism. “Many of these voters remember Newt as speaker,” says Kellyanne Conway, a pollster and senior Gingrich adviser. “His popularity in the region is partly because he represented a  southern state but mostly because they view him as a reformer with results, not a talker making promises.”

In a memo released on Saturday, Conway predicted that “large majorities” of Alabama and Mississippi voters would flock to Gingrich because of his energy ideas.

But Gingrich isn’t the only one catching fire down south.

As they look at the swelling crowds for their candidate, Santorum advisers agree with Gingrich backers: They see Romney as vulnerable to a  southern stumble. “The fact that Romney is practicing saying ‘y’all’ and trying to placate people by saying he eats grits — that’ll be seen by a few  southerners as slightly offensive,” says John Brabender, Santorum’s strategist.

After Santorum won the Tennessee and Oklahoma primaries on Super Tuesday, Brabender says, the two Tuesday contests are important to him, but not in the same way they are to Gingrich. Santorum hopes to add to his delegate totals — a win in either state, Brabender says, would be welcome but not crucial to his chances.

“Given the fact that Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are vying for the same voting bloc in the Deep South, Mitt Romney could win one of these two states,” says Ford O’Connell. “And if that occurs, the GOP primary could wind down, with Romney showing strength across all regions.”

“They have their backs up against the wall,” adds Henry Barbour, the Republican national committeeman for Mississippi and a Romney supporter, about Gingrich’s predicament. “Romney doesn’t have to win,” he says. “Romney is the underdog here. As long as you’re second or third and you’re not that far off from first, there isn’t a big difference in delegates.” His argument echoes that made by Brabender — that Alabama and Mississippi matter most to Gingrich.

That may be, says Rick Tyler, the director of Winning Our future, a pro-Gingrich super PAC. But he cautions Republicans to be worried if Romney can’t win in a key conservative region.

“Romney is weak,” Tyler says. “While I concede that it’ll be hard for Newt to catch Romney’s delegate totals, it’ll be equally hard for Romney to have enough delegates by the time Tampa comes to get the nomination. And if that happens, Romney would lose on the first ballot.”

But should Romney or Santorum beat Gingrich in either state, the whispers urging Gingrich to drop out will likely become a roar. On Sunday, Gingrich insisted in an interview with CBS’s Face the Nation that he is “committed to going all the way to Tampa.”

“We’re going to get a lot of delegates in both Mississippi and Alabama, and I think the odds are pretty good that we’ll win them,” he said.

Sources close to the Gingrich campaign say that his private words match his public ones — he wants to fight on, in spite of the Beltway chatter. They say that he is not ready to endorse another candidate or return home. But he is willing, according to sources who know him, to seriously reevaluate his strategy, schedule, and resource allocation should he fizzle.

“He’s the only one who can make up his mind,” says Brabender, the Santorum strategist. “I can’t control the thought process of another candidate. But I can urge conservatives and tea-party supporters to back one candidate, to not split their votes. If not, the moderates in the party will pick our nominee.”

On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Santorum reiterated that message. “I’m not going to tell people to get out,” he said. “I didn’t ask Speaker Gingrich to get in. I’m not going to ask him to get out.”

Representative Westmoreland, for his part, acknowledges that Gingrich has a tough road ahead. “After Super Tuesday, with Santorum and Romney picking up wins, it’ll be a little more difficult for Newt to have large margins in Alabama and Mississippi,” he says. “Is Newt’s battle going to be a little more uphill than the other two? Probably so. But he’s going to get some momentum.”

But even if Gingrich sweeps, the looming question is whether he can compete elsewhere, and whether his tumultuous campaign, which has risen before, Lazarus-like, can do so again.

“Look, if he doesn’t do well, he will have to reassess,” says former Louisiana representative Bob Livingston, a prominent Gingrich supporter. “This is a chess match. If it begins to look impossible, they’ll have to recognize that and negotiate in another direction. But it may not. Everybody has counted him out twice, and he’s come back.”

Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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