York: With Gingrich on ropes, Santorum tries KO

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"Did you ever think Alabama and Mississippi would suddenly play a crucial role?" asks a Newt Gingrich adviser, a little amazed at the turns the Republican presidential race has taken in the last two months. Maybe no one imagined it, but for Gingrich, next week's Alabama and Mississippi primaries are suddenly more than crucial. Unless the former speaker wins one, or maybe both, it's hard to see him continuing his campaign.

Before Super Tuesday, the Gingrich team believed he not only had to win his home state of Georgia but also needed a victory in either Oklahoma or Tennessee. Gingrich won neither; he didn't even finish second. But he won Georgia in a blowout, with a margin -- 21 points -- that Team Gingrich viewed as strong enough to keep going.

But not for long. Alabama is next door to Gingrich's home, it's conservative, and he is well-known and respected there. Mississippi is similar. If Gingrich can't win in either of those states, then where can he win? If he loses both next Tuesday, Gingrich might decided to hang on to compete in Louisiana, which holds its primary March 24. But even a victory there wouldn't prove much.

Meanwhile, Alabama and Mississippi are suddenly crucial for Rick Santorum, too. Santorum came out of Super Tuesday happy about wins in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota, but also feeling, after his narrow loss to Romney in Ohio, that he can't beat Romney as long as Gingrich's presence in the race prevents a one-on-one showdown. (Of course, Ron Paul is still running, too, but making less and less of an impact.) "If Newt were out of this race, we'd be winning these states by 10 points," frustrated Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said at Santorum's Super Tuesday election night event in Ohio.

But to get at Romney, Santorum has to knock Gingrich out first. That's where Alabama and Mississippi come in.

Santorum is not as well-known as Gingrich in either state, but he has momentum. And Alabama, in particular, might line up well for the former Pennsylvania senator.

For one thing, it has lots of pro-lifers. In exit polls from the 2008 Republican primary won by Mike Huckabee, 32 percent of GOP voters said abortion should always be illegal, and 45 percent said it should be mostly illegal. That's a huge pro-life bloc that the famously pro-life Santorum might be able to exploit.

Alabama also has a lot of evangelicals, who have been Santorum's base of support. In the '08 exit polls, 77 percent of Alabama GOP voters identified themselves as evangelical or born-again. If any Alabamians are concerned about Gingrich's marriages, they'll be in that group.

Finally, Alabama doesn't have a lot of Catholics. It's been a notable feature of the race that Santorum, a devoted and outspoken Catholic, has not done particularly well with Catholic voters, while he has done well with Protestants. In Ohio, and in a bunch of other states as well, Romney won the Catholic vote, and Santorum won the Protestant vote.

In this week's Ohio primary, 33 percent of GOP voters identified themselves as Catholic. In Alabama in 2008, that number was 5 percent. Santorum could lose the Catholic vote in Alabama, and it wouldn't be as big a deal.

Both Santorum and Gingrich are acutely aware of how important next Tuesday's races are. Just a short time ago, Gingrich planned to spend the day before the primaries on a fundraising trip. But recently his top advisers presented him with a question: If you raise $1 million on Monday and lose Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday, what are you going to do with the money? Gingrich decided to head south for last-minute campaigning.

Even if he beats Santorum in Alabama or Mississippi, or both, Gingrich still faces questions about being a regional candidate. As important as the South is to the GOP, the party's nominee has to show he can win outside the region. Gingrich hasn't. Santorum, with victories from Colorado to Minnesota to Tennessee, has.

Romney's challenge in Alabama is not nearly as daunting. But if he loses both states, he will face increasing questions about an inability to win in the Republican Party's rock-solid Southern base. While Romney won Virginia, only he and Ron Paul were on the ballot. (Not Romney's fault -- the other candidates just couldn't get it together to qualify.) Romney also won Florida, but that's a state analysts see as less and less Southern with each new election cycle.

So next week isn't critical to Romney. But it is to Gingrich and Santorum, and what happens to them could reshape the race. Again.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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