The Republican presidential race seems a lot clearer this morning.
It looks like Tuesday's primaries in the unlikeliest of places -- Alabama and Mississippi -- have narrowed the campaign to a two-man race between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.
A Home Run, a Strikeout, and a Shutout.
In sports parlance, the Dixie primary was a dramatic "home run" for Santorum, a devastating "strikeout" for self-declared southern favorite Gingrich, and a "double-header shutout" for the nationally front-running Romney.
The outcome was tight in both states. Late returns showed Santorum leading Gingrich by 5 percent and Romney by 6 percent in Alabama; and he was prevailing by 2 percent and 3 percent over those opponents in Mississippi. Santorum gets the winner's share of the delegates allotted to the two states, but the other candidates will pick up proportional delegate support.
Winnowing the Field.
Much more importantly, Santorum's Deep South victories could chase Gingrich out of the presidential race. Before the vote tally began, Santorum hammered away at the Georgian to get out of the race and let the Pennsylvania conservative take on the moderate Romney. The twin wins clearly put Santorum into prime position as the non-Romney for the rest of the campaign season.
Assuming that the late-night vote totals hold up, here's what the Dixie primary means for the three major candidates:
Santorum. The young Catholic, a former U.S. Senator, stirs passions among enthusiastic gatherings wherever he goes; and he apparently won over evangelicals, conservatives, and Tea Party voters in both states. Exit polls show that his supporters were committed to his cause, rejecting oft-stated claims that Romney and Gingrich would be stronger candidates against Democratic President Barack Obama.
Gingrich. The former Speaker of the House, also a Catholic, had predicted that he would sweep these two states; but now he has to reconsider his place in the presidential campaign. He says "I'm going to Tampa"; and he presents himself as the only man who can whip Obama. But he has little money and no logical path, via upcoming primaries or caucuses, to the nomination.
Romney. For the former Massachusetts Governor, Tuesday's showing was, in some respects, predictable -- but abysmal nevertheless. The wealthy Yankee Mormon was considered a stark misfit for this part of the country, or as he himself labeled the Deep South primaries, "an away game"; but he had strong support from the state party establishments and some polls showed him with a slight lead just days before the actual voting. If he had been able to prevail in either Alabama or Mississippi, he would have silenced skeptics about his ability to seal the deal. Now, after apparent third-place finishes, he faces an energetic, consensus conservative who could cause him fits for the rest of the intraparty campaign.
Headed Toward a Brokered Convention?
Despite the narrowness of his victories, Santorum seems much better positioned to contest this campaign the rest of the way; and Gingrich insists he's in it to stay. All three contenders dispute each other's announced delegate count and projected course to the party nomination; and each claims to be capable of winning the prize.
The Dixie primary therefore extends an already brutal campaign. There are 25 more primaries scheduled before the late August Republican national convention; and prospects are growing that no one will have the requisite number of delegates to assure nomination. Maybe we are heading to an historic floor-fight and brokered convention in Tampa.