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Southern primaries preview: Romney lead puts pressure on Gingrich, Santorum

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Former Senator Santorum, a champion of social conservatism, also has some purchase in the South, despite his Pennsylvania roots. He won the Super Tuesday primary in Tennessee, and a victory in Alabama and/or Mississippi would show that his appeal ranges further into the South.

For Mr. Romney, the March 13 contests have more upside than down. He’s already expected to win the Hawaii caucuses, and if he can also eke out a victory in even one of the Southern primaries, that would be a coup. The very Northern Romney has tried to connect with voters in Mississippi and Alabama with a little self-deprecating humor – working “y’all” into his patter and talking about “cheesy grits” – but, as in other states, his best argument may still be that he fares best against President Obama in polls.

“It’s likely to be a long night,” says Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who has worked on campaigns in the South. “If Romney wins one, this could wind down. If he wins both that might be just short of historic.”

Going forward, Romney’s best “firewall” is Gingrich’s ego, Mr. O’Connell says.

Gingrich maintains that he will stay in the race all the way to Tampa, no matter what. Of course, most politicians insist they’ll never drop out until they do, but few can match Gingrich for self-confidence – especially as long as he has the backing of Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has poured millions into a pro-Gingrich super-PAC.

In the delegate hunt, Gingrich is third with 107 behind Romney (454) and Santorum (217), out of 1,144 needed to secure the nomination, according to the Associated Press. The fourth Republican still in the race, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has 47 delegates. His continued presence in the race chops up the vote further, though there’s not much call for the libertarian Congressman Paul to drop out. His followers are particularly devoted to him and his unorthodox views, making it likely that many would simply not vote were he not in the race.

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