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A Lot on the Line in Southern Primary Tossups for Santorum

After consecutive weeks of coping with do-or-die primaries in Michigan and Ohio, it is fair to say the pressure’s off Mitt Romney this week. While his candidacy would receive a major boost from victories in either Mississippi or Alabama, he’s not under the same pressure to win there. With evangelicals predominating in both of these southern states, the assumption is either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum ought to be the favorite. Yet with both challengers competing hard to win there, the frontrunner may have as good a chance as any of them.

But the outcome in Mississippi and Alabama will have major implications for both Santorum and Gingrich. Santorum has spent the last month playing the role of the principal “not Romney” in the GOP race. But wins in these states by anybody but him will undermine that claim, perhaps fatally. Anything that burnishes Gingrich’s assertion that he is the true conservative hope will play into Romney’s hands, because it will mean that a divided field won’t be winnowed down to Santorum’s desired one-on-one matchup with the former Massachusetts governor. If Santorum is to be the conservative standard bearer in the fight for the Republican nomination, he’s got to beat both Gingrich and Romney in the South.

The latest polls from the two states from Public Policy Polling show both states to be a virtual three-way tossup. But the bad news for Santorum is he seems to be in third place in both–trailing Gingrich by six percentage points in Mississippi and Romney by two points in Alabama. While he can look forward to another strong performance this weekend in Missouri, third place finishes, no matter what the margin might be, will be a blow to a campaign that has little margin for error.

Romney has much to gain and little to lose in the Deep South. Gingrich, a candidate with little real hope for the nomination, just seems to want a victory or two in order to justify continuing his ego-driven campaign. But Santorum, whose victories and close losses in major states has persuaded his backers he has a real chance, needs wins badly. If somehow he can prevail in both on the strength of his powerful appeal to evangelicals and other social conservatives, the pressure will grow on Gingrich to withdraw. Failing that, the argument that he presents a credible rather than a symbolic challenge to Romney will lose strength.

All of this means that for the first time in this race, Santorum is the one with the pressure on him. By Wednesday, Santorum’s pretensions to genuine contention will be either exposed or bolstered.