Wow! Alabama and Mississippi have yearned for years to be in this situation. Eyes and ears of the nation fixed on two southern states outside the normal glare of mainstream national politics! A real chance to impact the election of the U.S. president! Not since the tumultuous days of the civil rights movement have political pulses pounded so passionately in the Heart of Dixie and our neighboring Magnolia State.
The Republican presidential primary circus has come to the Deep South; and the air is full of feisty gossip, old-time politicking, and sophisticated new campaigning for Tuesday's election. The candidates, pundits, news media, and opportunists of all sorts are jabbering about religious faith, marital infidelity, phony conservatism, big-spending liberals, and carpetbaggers faking accents and eating grits; and the campaign organizations and phantom Super PACs are running endless ads, doing massive robo-calling, and conducting scientifically-targeted GOTV.
However, the most important news is that, at this point, right before voting day, there is no consensus enthusiasm among red partisans here for either Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, or Rick Santorum. The contending visitors are doing their awkward best in the deepest of the Deep South; but, just as is the case in other parts of the country, Alabamians and Mississippians consider the various candidates somewhat lacking for one reason or another.
Furthermore, cynical folks sense that there will be no real "winner" Tuesday night. The campaign has been brutal; and there's growing suspicion that the battered contestants will depart the area without settling much of anything.
Let's take a closer look at the four candidates and their aspirations for Tuesday's election.
Ron Paul. Libertarians worship his cranky independence. I don't know what, if anything, he hopes to achieve here; but he's likely to suffer the same electoral problems this Tuesday as he has in previous primaries. (The polls discount Paul as a long-shot; so I'll exclude him from further discussion.)
Newt Gingrich. The nine-lives politician from nearby Georgia is campaigning as an outsider; and he's counting on the conservative and religious communities to support him despite environmental dallying with Nancy Pelosi and publicly confessed/repented moral sins. Gingrich's immediate competitor is Santorum; and his best prospect may be to emerge from Alabama and Mississippi as a healthy regional favorite.
Rick Santorum. Many southern evangelicals seem enamored with the young Pennsylvanian, who was soundly defeated as a sitting Senator in his home state a few years ago. Santorum is in this regional fight for two reasons. First, he needs to end Gingrich's presidential campaign here and now; second, he hopes to establish himself as the conservative alternative to Romney heading into the heat of the primary season.
Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor epitomizes misfit aspiration in this part of the country. A wealthy Mormon Yankee who's learning how to say "y'all" and "I like grits"; calls himself a severe conservative but his record evidences moderation; promises to kill Obamacare but authored Romneycare; endorsed by Alabama governor Robert Bentley and Mississippi governor Phil Bryant (and former governors Bob Riley and Haley Barbour) but has not impressed working class voters. Romney recognizes that Dixie is not his strength; but he needs to make a decent showing here. He also knows that he must add Alabama and Mississippi and the rest of the South to his column in the general election.
Now, what are the likely outcomes when the votes are tallied?
Recent polling attests to the lack of consensus about the candidates. Surveys in the past week show tight and contradictory results, with nobody charging ahead. In Alabama, Gingrich leads by one percent in two polls (Rasmussen and Center for Leadership and Public Policy), and Romney is ahead by three percent in the other poll (Capital Survey Research Center). In Mississippi, two surveys show similar results, with Romney leading by eight percent in one (Rasmussen) and Gingrich ahead by four percent in another (American Research Group).
The usual experts are making no predictions about who's going to win in either state. My colleagues note that Catholics Gingrich and Santorum are running strong among aroused churchgoers and the Tea Party crowd; but my sources will not be shocked if the party leadership pulls it off for the Mormon Romney.
Sometime Tuesday evening, we'll start characterizing the results in sporting context. Here's my analysis, in baseball parlance, for the most noteworthy possible scenarios.
Home Run: Either Gingrich, Romney, or Santorum leads both state primaries. This would endow any slugger with bragging rights and added momentum for the rest of the season.
Strikeout: Either Gingrich, Romney, or Santorum trails among this threesome in both primaries. If it's Gingrich, perhaps he should consider packing his bags and quietly going home -- but he won't. If it's Santorum, he shrugs it off and hopes for better days in a long season. If it's Romney, he says "See y'all later" and proceeds toward his presumed World Series Championship.
Double-Header Split: One candidate wins Alabama and another candidate wins Mississippi. Both leaders emphasize, selectively, the importance of their successful performance; the winless soul talks about moral victories; and everybody asks, "Where's the next game?"
The GOP circus leaves town Wednesday morning. Surviving candidates will work their way into local cultures and wage brutal contests elsewhere. Eventually, a Republican champion will emerge; and, most likely, Alabama, Mississippi, and the rest of Dixie will rally around whoever takes the field against Barack Obama in November.