Super Tuesday will highlight the region of the country often called the heart of the Republican Party: the South.
Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee are among the 10 states voting on Tuesday. Mississippi and Alabama will extend the spotlight on the region with primaries four days later.
It’s possible that three different candidates will split these Southern contests, reflecting the 2012 primary’s extraordinary volatility. “It’s a mess,’’ sighed Matt Towery, publisher of the Southern Political Report. “This nomination is going to be up for grabs for a while.’’
It’s also possible that the front-runner for the nomination, Mitt Romney, won’t win a single one of these five Southern states, reinforcing, once again, his challenges in galvanizing the GOP’s conservative base. The region, known for its conservative and evangelical leanings, is tough ground for a Mormon who once backed abortion rights and gay rights.
But Romney supporters argue that it’s more important for him to prove his appeal in more-competitive battlegrounds to the North and the West. They say the South will come home to the Republican Party in the general election, no matter what. “The heart of the party ain’t leaving the body. It’s the extremities you better be worried about,’’ quipped Henry Barbour, a leading Romney supporter in Mississippi.
Romney's problems in the region were highlighted by his loss in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. But when it comes to the more moderate parts of the South, he is on solid ground. He won the Florida primary on Jan. 31 and is expected to win handily on Tuesday in Virginia, where his only competition is Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich did not qualify for the ballot there. Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina – all won by Barack Obama in 2008 -- loom as major general-election battlegrounds.
“Those will be the important states in November,’’ Barbour said. “If we focus too much on who wins Oklahoma, we are missing the point.’’
Here’s how the state of play looks for Tuesday:
Newt Gingrich is favored to win his home state of Georgia -- the biggest prize of the night with 76 delegates – and is looking ahead to Mississippi and Alabama four days later to reestablish himself as a serious contender. Polls show Santorum ahead in Oklahoma and Tennessee. Gingrich’s best hope for an upset is Oklahoma, while Romney’s best chance is in slightly more moderate Tennessee. If Santorum and Gingrich split the conservative wing of the party, there’s an outside chance Romney could pull ahead.
Consider that Romney won Florida, but exit polls show Gingrich was narrowly more popular in the Panhandle, the part of the state that is most like the rest of the South. “Clearly he has an uphill battle to win a Southern state,’’ Barbour said of Tennessee.
A win in the South would go a long way toward crushing lingering doubts about the level of grassroots enthusiasm for Romney’s bid. But the more likely scenario is that the South will fail to bring order to a race that has continued to defy expectations.