The four remaining Republican presidential candidates competed in nominating contests in Alabama, Mississippi and Hawaii on Tuesday, with 101 delegates up for grabs.
Both the Alabama and Mississippi primaries proved to be the night's most interesting. Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were in a virtual dead heat leading up to Tuesday, with Ron Paul trailing his rivals. For Romney, the primaries were a chance to prove he could appeal to southern voters. For Gingrich and Santorum, Tuesday was another round in their ongoing battle to be the contest's most conservative candidate.
Although the Hawaii caucus was almost entirely overshadowed by the primaries in the South, there was at least one candidate who had high hopes for the Aloha State's 17 delegates. Paul, the only remaining candidate who had yet to claim a win, hoped to put an end to his long string of losses with a victory in the Pacific.
Here's a look at the night's biggest winners and losers.
Social issues have been a mainstay of the Republican presidential primary campaign thus far, but they played a key role in Mississippi and Alabama, where evangelical Christians were a dominant force. According to exit polls, about 80 percent of voters in Mississippi's primary were white born-again or evangelical Christians. Almost 75 percent of voters in Alabama identified similarly. Polls also showed that strong moral character was a highly important factor for these voters. The data showed that the group favored Santorum in Alabama and Romney in Mississippi. Unsurprisingly, conservatives were also a key group in the Deep South, making up about 70 percent of primary voters. Four in 10 voters in the two states labeled themselves as "very" conservative.
When it came down to which of Tuesday's contests would get the most attention from media and candidates, Hawaii's caucus had a number of factors stacked against it. The state has a relatively low number of delegates, it's a long flight from campaign headquarters, and returns weren't slated to come in until 2 a.m. on the East Coast. As the AP reported, none of the candidates had made stops in the Aloha State prior to Tuesday. They instead sent their children to stump for them. Ronnie Paul, Elizabeth Santorum and Matt Romney all headed to the islands to meet with voters.
The former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate may still be claiming to be endorsement-free (despite her vote for Newt Gingrich on Super Tuesday), but that hasn't stopped Sarah Palin from getting involved in the race at every turn. America's fascination with Palin continued this past weekend, when HBO's "Game Change" aired to much media fanfare. Although Palin derided the movie, many reviewers said the film's depiction of the would-be-VP cast her in a rather sympathetic light. Whether or not the film accurately represented Palin's rise to fame, "Game Change" again thrust her into the spotlight, and renewed speculation about her future electoral prospects.
From comparing an Alabama crowd to a "nice and wet" can of sardines to professing his affinity for grits in Mississippi, Romney seemed to be even more awkward than usual while making his final campaign pushes in the Deep South. The odd attempts at winning regional hearts and minds continued as he campaigned in Missouri on Tuesday. "I love that music. Don't ya love bluegrass?" he reportedly asked a crowd. His uneasiness likely did him no favors with southern Republicans, who he had also failed to win over in South Carolina and Georgia. Romney himself admitted that the South proved particularly challenging for him, describing the Alabama and Mississippi primaries as an "away game."
Alabama endorsements proved fruitful for Rick Santorum, who won the Yellowhammer State after a tight race against rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. The state's governor, Robert Bentley, cast a vote for Santorum on Tuesday, although he was careful to clarify that his vote was not an official endorsement. But Santorum did get the nod from several Alabama GOP lawmakers, including Rep. Alan Nunnelee and Rep. Robert Aderholt. For the former Pennsylvania senator, these endorsements may have made the difference in this very close contest.
Another week, another winless night for Ron Paul. Paul skipped campaigning in Mississippi and Alabama, instead looking to Hawaii. But while the Texas congressman continues his hunt for delegates in caucus states, he is still struggling to connect with enough voters to get close to the magic number. Before Tuesday's contests, he had 47 delegates in his corner -- far behind frontrunner Mitt Romney's 454. Paul's campaign continues to stress that winning the GOP nomination is "not far-fetched" and that he will not leave the race anytime soon. But as the campaign wears on, and time and money run out, it's difficult to see how Paul's "in it to win it" strategy will pan out.
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