The PJ Tatler

The South in March: Newt’s Last Stand?

In March, the primary schedule returns to the South on March 6 with Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee voting on “Super Tuesday” with Alabama and Mississippi to follow a week later and Louisiana on March 24.  With at least two debate/forums scheduled and six Southern states having primaries, March represents Newt Gingrich’s best (and perhaps last) chance to re-gain his momentum for the third time in this very volatile campaign.   As Newt told CNN last week, he’s expecting another burst of strength: “This thing has had a wild rhythm. It resembles riding Space Mountain at Disney. I’ve been frontrunner twice. I suspect I’ll be the front-runner again in a few weeks.”  As if on cue, the national Gallup Poll found Newt’s support increasing slightly from 13% of Republicans in mid-February to 16% on March 1.

Mitt Romney’s victories in Arizona and Michigan were probably good news for Newt as they prevented Rick Santorum from almost completely consolidating the Right and emerging as the sole conservative alternative to Romney.  Now Newt will have another opportunity to rise in the South again.

Twice before, Newt became the frontrunner in the national Gallup Poll – in December before Romney buried him under a barrage of negative ads in Iowa and then again in January after Newt’s comeback win in South Carolina – only to be buried again in Florida by another onslaught of Romney attack ads.  The South will tell if the former Speaker of the House has yet another comeback in him.

Newt has been forced to make a major effort in his home state of Georgia for fear of losing.  If he does lose Georgia, his campaign is all over but the final concession speech. But if he can win four or five Southern states (neither Santorum nor he made the Virginia ballot) this month, he’ll be back in business.

Here’s why: because the South has voted Republican so often in the last generation, those states have been awarded numerous “bonus” delegates.  For example, Georgia (76) has more delegates either Ohio (66) or Illinois (69) despite the fact Georgia had fewer people in the 2010 Census.  Alabama has as many delegates as New Jersey, Texas has almost as many as California while the Golden State has over ten million more residents.  And so on….Winning those pumped-up Southern primaries will catapult Newt back into second place in the delegate count and allow him to make one more run at Romney.

As of this writing, Gingrich is leading Romney in Georgia (by 38-26%) in the Rasmussen Poll, while Santorum led Romney in Tennessee by 40-19% with Newt at only 13%.  (By default, Romney is a likely winner in Virginia against Ron Paul).  No polls are currently available in Alabama and Mississippi, but a big Newt victory in Georgia would presumably give him a “slingshot” of momentum in much of the Deep South.

In the other Super Tuesday states in the Midwest, it looks like another battle between Romney and Santorum.  In Ohio, both Quinnipiac and Rasmussen Polls show a close Santorum-Romney race that will likely be as hard-fought as Michigan.  Oklahoma, with its large rural evangelical population, looks like a win for Santorum: he led Romney there by 43-18% with 22% for Newt in a February Rasmussen survey.

There are several other states voting March 6, but polls show that Newt isn’t competitive there.  Idaho has the nation’s second largest Mormon concentration, so Romney is favored there (he won it in 2008).  And on Romney’s New England home turf of Massachusetts and Vermont, Newt is polling less than 15%.  As perhaps befitting the “Last Frontier,” the Alaska Caucuses are considered wide-open.

So it will likely all come down to a Southern revival for Mr. Gingrich, who once represented the Atlanta area.  If Newt can repeat his thumping South Carolina triumph (where he won 23 of 25 delegates) in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, plus put together a respectable showing in Tennessee, he’ll be a contender again.  If not, he’ll fade out like Howard Dean in 2004.

Can Newt do it in Dixie?  Absolutely, he won South Carolina handily and carried the North Florida “Panhandle,” which is the part of Florida most like the Deep South — i.e., Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

(Texas has tentatively rescheduled its primary to May and also represents a good target for Newt with its vast pool of Southern conservatives.  But first, he must survive March).

Just carrying Southern states will not make Newt president.  To win the nomination, Newt Gingrich will eventually have to break outside of his Southern base.  But winning the South in March will allow him to fight another day.

Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California and the co-author of “California After Arnold.” He is now working on a book on 21st century American politics.