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Santorum Sweep Would Make Romney’s Task Harder and Longer

A slow vote count in both Alabama and Mississippi has left the outcome of both primaries in doubt until 10pm. Both states appeared to be a three-way scrum in which Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were all within a few points of each other. Nevertheless, Santorum has been projected to win Alabama and has taken a lead in Mississippi leaving open the question of just how significant such a double victory would be if, in fact, he hangs on in both states.

It should be understood that in contrast to earlier primaries, this is one night in which all the pressure was on Santorum and Gingrich with very little on Romney. Few expected Romney to do well in the Deep South where evangelical voters predominate. A win in either Alabama or Mississippi would be a coup for the frontrunner and prove that his was truly a national candidacy. But even if he fails to win, he doesn’t lose much ground in the all-important delegate count since the proportional allocation of delegates won’t give any of the three contenders much of an advantage after such a close race. And with Hawaii, whose caucus results may well be known before Alabama finishes its ultra-slow vote count, will likely give Romney a win offsetting any damage done in the South by Santorum. Nevertheless, a double victory for Santorum would enable the Pennsylvanian to once again claim that he is the true standard-bearer for conservatives. It would also place more pressure on Newt Gingrich to withdraw though I doubt there is anything that could compel the former speaker to abandon his candidacy.

The danger for Romney, however, is not so much in the effect of tonight’s voting on the delegate count but on the momentum that it might give Santorum heading into Missouri, Louisiana and Illinois later this month. Santorum will be favored in Louisiana and Missouri but Illinois is the sort of state that Romney is expected to win. Romney managed to squeak out close wins in Michigan and Ohio over Santorum. But the more credibility that Santorum gets by piling up primary victories the harder it will be for Romney to pull out Illinois.

Romney already knows he’s locked in a long, hard slog to get to the nomination even if the delegate math indicates that he will prevail in the end. But the longer he must keep fighting and fending off bitter attacks on his credibility, the harder it will be for him to unite his party behind his candidacy once the dust settles.