All day this past Tuesday, I crisscrossed Mississippi on the Rick Bus, a Susan B. Anthony List-led independent effort to turn out Rick Santorum voters who care about life, marriage and religious liberty.
On the long road from Jackson to Biloxi, I watched Fox News and CNN frame a victory for Mitt Romney in either Alabama or Mississippi, the end of Santorum and the coronation of Romney, proof-positive that he can win in the South and be embraced by the GOP core.
Instead, Romney lost in both Alabama and Mississippi.
As predicted, Gingrich and Santorum divided the anti-Romney vote. And yet the pro-Romney vote turned out to be even weaker than Romney had hoped, pundits predicted or polls suggested.
Romney is paying a price for his scorched earth tactics: Carpet-bombing your opponents with negative ads based on half-truths doesn’t generate much enthusiasm for your own campaign among your own supporters.
With his losses in Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama, Romney is even beginning to take on the contours of a regional candidate — one who runs well in the Northeast, which is not key to a Republican winning the presidency, as well as states with strong Mormon votes (Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming).
He can win in Southern states only where no other candidate has the ability to compete because of resources (Florida) or organization (Virginia).
He is able to pull out only the narrowest of victories in states like Ohio and Michigan, against a divided field, with humongous advantages in money and organization, and a 4-to-1 or more advantage in negative ads that he won’t have against President Obama in the fall.
For a candidate whose strong suit is “electability,” Romney’s beginning to emerge as a very weak candidate to win in November, especially if the economy continues to nudge toward recovery.
Santorum, whose campaign began with strong support from Iowa evangelicals and other so-called “social conservatives,” has now fought his way close to parity with Romney among economic conservatives, or at least among voters who say the economy is their main issue, exit polls confirmed on Tuesday.
In Alabama, among the 80 percent of voters who say they are “very worried” about the economy, Santorum essentially split the vote with Romney (31 percent to 32 percent). In Mississippi, 56 percent of voters chose the economy as the most important issue, and Santorum picked up just as many of these voters as Romney (33 percent for each).
So, given Santorum’s powerful lead among social conservatives, what is keeping Romney in this race? A short answer: Newt Gingrich. A slightly longer answer: the myth of electability.
In Alabama, among those who say the top quality they want in a candidate is someone who “can defeat Obama,” Santorum lost 51 percent to 15 percent.
In Mississippi, 39 percent chose “can defeat Obama” as the most important quality in a candidate, and these broke heavily as well for Romney, 46 percent to 22 percent.
Santorum has a real opening to explode the myth that Romney is the most electable candidate. Romney has revealed himself to be a front-runner with clay feet, running inside a glass house built on sand.
A third thing keeping Romney in the race? The argument made from despair, aka “inevitability.”
All of these are very weak ground on which to stand for a presidential candidate who hopes to defeat Barack Obama in November.