WASHINGTON -– Newt Gingrich ended an appearance Monday night at a presidential forum in Birmingham, Ala., with a cry of defiance, vowing to remain a candidate for president in the Republican primary.
"I do not believe the other two candidates can beat Obama and I believe this race is the most important in our lifetime," Gingrich said emphatically. "And I will not leave the field."
Equally important as the former House speaker's (R-Ga) resolve is the fact that polls show him in the hunt to win in both primaries on Tuesday, in Mississippi and Alabama. A victory in either state would make it hard for those supporting former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) to argue that Gingrich should drop out and give Santorum a one-on-one shot at Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
Santorum and his campaign lowered expectations Monday for his performance in the two Southern states, arguing that the election calendar ahead, beyond the primaries on Tuesday, favors them.
"All the pressure is on Romney and Gingrich tomorrow," senior Santorum adviser John Brabender told The Huffington Post. "Our big states are down the road."
A memo from Santorum's newly hired delegate counter, John Yob, implied that Gingrich could be out of the race by the April 3 primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Yob wrote that those three primaries "could be the first contests that are a one-on-one between a conservative and a moderate."
And in a spin that strained credulity, Yob argued that Santorum's failure to qualify for the D.C. primary ballot "was not a problem for us ... because D.C. Republicans would almost surely vote for the most moderate candidate anyway."
Yob predicted a "good day" on April 24, when New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware hold primaries, even though most of those states are likely to favor Romney. And he wrote that May 8 primaries in North Carolina, Indiana and West Virginia will be "the beginning of the end for Mitt Romney."
But the reality is that if Santorum loses either Mississippi or Alabama, and especially if he loses both, he will face questions about his ability to light the match and fully ignite the GOP's conservative base.
A week ago, Santorum was coming off a strong showing on Super Tuesday, winning Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota, and nearly beating Romney in Ohio. His own advisers and a super PAC supporting him said Gingrich should drop out and let Santorum run against Romney without anyone splitting the conservative vote.
But Gingrich stepped up his attacks on Santorum, and even overruled a comment from a spokesman implying that his candidacy might no longer be viable if he lost either Mississippi or Alabama.
A Santorum win in Alabama is possible, but a third-place finish in Mississippi looks equally so. That would be a blow to his hopes of gathering an unstoppable momentum to sweep Gingrich out of the race and to shake Romney's lead in delegates.
Yob's memo focused on opportunities to narrow Romney's delegate lead through the state convention process. He said that the longer the primary goes on, the more the nomination rests in the hands of the most conservative activists who make up the party's base, and the more that favors Santorum.
But activists and Republican delegates in key states will only consider breaking toward Santorum if he stays close to Romney in the delegate count and if there is powerful momentum sweeping up loose anti-Romney elements inside the party and toward Santorum. So far, that has yet to happen, as best evidenced by Santorum's apparent inability to surge ahead of Gingrich and Romney in Mississippi and Alabama.
Santorum's path to the nomination will grow more difficult with losses in either primary. Yet Santorum insisted, in an interview with conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt, that "this race isn’t even close to over, and everybody knows it, including Mitt Romney."
Santorum told Hewitt that the Romney campaign's delegate arguments -- focused on Romney's two-to-one lead in delegates -- are "silly theories that are not based in reality."
And Santorum again raised the prospect of fighting Romney all the way to the August national convention in Tampa.
"This is a convention that we may end up going to, I don’t know. But either way, conservatives are going to nominate a conservative. I’m convinced of that. And the more this race goes on, the more that will become evident," Santorum said.
Romney took an equally forceful position against the GOP primary extending to Tampa.
"We sure as heck are not going to go to a convention, all the way to the end of August, to select a nominee and have campaign working during a convention," Romney said on Fox News. "Why, can you imagine anything that would be a bigger gift to Barack Obama than us not having a nominee until the end of August? That is just not going to happen."
Romney's campaign brought in comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who has significant red-state appeal, to campaign with Romney in Jackson, Miss., on Monday morning.
"I am looking forward to going there and hunting with you sometime. And you can actually show me which end of the rifle to point," Romney joked to Foxworthy.
Foxworthy told CNN after the event that hunting with Romney "sounds even more dangerous than Cheney if you ask me."
"We may start with a BB gun and work our way up to a rifle," Foxworthy cracked.
For Romney, the worst outcome on Tuesday would be to finish behind Gingrich and Santorum in both contests. But poll numbers, especially in Mississippi where he has a strong organization headed by Austin Barbour, nephew of the state's former Gov. Haley Barbour, do not indicate that Romney will finish third.
Nonetheless, Romney supporters sweated details including this week's spring break at Mississippi high schools, taking many wealthy families -- a dependable Romney voting bloc -- to the Gulf Shores for the week and away from their homes and voting precincts.
CORRECTION: This article originally reported that Romney's Mississippi operation is being run by Henry Barbour, who is also a nephew to former Gov. Barbour.