Rick Santorum's aides and surrogates hit the news-talk circuit on Wednesday like Rush Limbaugh set loose on a buffet table. They were noisy and everywhere, almost clamoring in unison about the need for Newt Gingrich to get out the contest for the Republican nomination in order to let Santorum have a head-to-head contest with Mitt Romney in upcoming primaries. Conservative flame-keeper Richard Viguerie lent some dignity to the proceedings by weighing in with a calm analysis on his website calling on Gingrich to stand down and let Santorum carry the right's torch into battle with Romney.
It was a daylong exercise in futility of course. Given Gingrich's "gargantuan ego" as former Clintonite Dee Dee Myers put it on MSNBC, he is highly unlikely to end his presidential campaign now. Plus, the former House speaker just clocked a huge victory in Georgia, the most populous Southern state outside of Florida. Even though it was the only state in his win column on Super Tuesday - an achievement further discounted by it being his home state -- a big victory nevertheless hardly puts a candidate in a giving-up sort of mood.
But there's another reason for Gingrich not to hang up his cleats just yet.
Just around the corner are primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, two states rich in the kinds of voters that make up Gingrich's sweet spot: self-described as conservative, white and evangelical, economically downscale and generally enthralled with the tea party. They are the Republicans who flocked to him in Georgia and in his first big primary win in South Carolina. Yet they are also Santorum's demographic and they were key to Santorum's victories in Tennessee and Oklahoma on Tuesday. And that's where things get interesting.
In Tennessee, according to the exit polls, 73 percent of voters described themselves as conservative (Santorum won 42 percent of them; Gingrich 25 percent; Romney 25 percent); 73 percent were white evangelicals (42 percent Santorum; 25 percent Gingrich, 24 percent Romney); 35 percent had incomes under $50,000 (40 percent Santorum, 25 percent Gingrich, 24 percent Romney); and 62 percent said they support the tea party (Santorum 39 percent, Gingrich 28 percent, Romney 25 percent).
From Gingrich's point of view, he's been competing with Santorum for this same segment of voters since the primaries began. And while Santorum won them in Tennessee, Gingrich really did no worse than front-runner Mitt Romney with those voters, and he in fact won them in Georgia. If you're Newt Gingrich, why not see how things play out in the upcoming round, in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday (after the Kansas primary Saturday)?
Gingrich is setting up a one-on-one grudge match with Santorum for the conservative heart of the party in the South. Viewed that way, his continued participation is not pointless, but in fact serves a purpose for base Republican voters: Gingrich won them in South Carolina and Georgia. Santorum won them in Missouri, Tennessee and Oklahoma. The scorecard is roughly even. The question is, who has the best claim on the God-fearing, nine-to-five, government-loathing and generally p.o.'d segment of the Republican Party?
Alabama and Mississippi will decide on Tuesday. The conservatives' battle with Romney will just have to wait.