In all, a curious night.
Rick Santorum won the Alabama and Mississippi primaries, yet gave his victory speech in neighboring Louisiana (scene of a Mar. 24 Republican primary) before leaving for Puerto Rico, which votes this weekend.
Mitt Romney was competitive in both Deep South states – a surprise given the conservative, evangelical makeup of the vote. He spent Tuesday in Missouri, which is about to continue its caucus process, before jetting off to a New York fundraiser.
The one man who bothered to stick around – Newt Gingrich, who rode out the returns in Alabama – probably wished he were elsewhere. The former Speaker lost both states (he’s now 2 for 28 in all primaries and caucuses), in the process suffering major blows in terms of prestige and relevance.
As for what can be gleaned from Tuesday’s contests:
1) Grits and Gridlock. Maybe it was all those cheesy grits the candidates said they were ingesting. Romney’s aides are now telling reporters that it’ll take two months (hello, California) before they reach 1,144 delegates and the GOP nomination. Santorum and Gingrich aides are speaking openly about existing mainly to deny Romney the prize – no spinabout their guy winning on the first ballot. The honesty is refreshing. Not so pleasant is a likely repeat of what’s been happening for weeks now: Romney needing to validate his frontrunner status in the showdown state; Santorum and Gingrich dividing the conservative vote.
2) Bartender, Another Round, Please. The suggestion, heading into Tuesday’s vote: Romney could “seal the deal” with a strong showing in the two Dixie states. Not quite. As much as the media want a knockout moment, the reality of the 2012 GOP race is that of a slog – something entirely different for Republicans. The last prolonged GOP presidential race – Ford vs. Reagan, back in 1976 – was a matter of the incumbent president taking an early lead (Ford won the first 6 primaries) before his conservative challenger got back in the game (starting in North Carolina, Reagan won 10 of the final 23, including Texas and California). This year’s race is the opposite: the establishment Romney campaign looking for a moment to surge and achieve separation, but hampered by his own limitations and a process that’s built for distance, not speed. The next rounds: Illinois (Mar. 20), Louisiana, and then Wisconsin (April 3).
3) The War on . . . Obama? Newt Gingrich was the first to recognize rising gasoline prices as a potent campaign issue; his fellow Republicans soon followed. So far, Gingrich is the lone Republican (not counting Ron Paul, who’s never been a fan of American involvement overseas) to suggest the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is “not doable”. Compare that to Santorum lamenting a situation that’s become “very, very difficult”, or Romney talking about “kinetic activity”. Santorum did suggest, earlier this week, that perhaps it’s time to review America’s options in Afghanistan – including pulling out earlier than the Obama timeline, if need be. We’ll see if the issue mushrooms as: (a) events in Afghanistan warrant or (b) changing public attitudes necessitate. Gingrich may not win the GOP nomination; there’s no doubting his political instincts.
4) Marco . . . Rubio. Not the kids’ swimming-pool game, but a different game nonetheless. On the same day that the presidential hopefuls were in the Deep South or scattered about, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was in swing-state Ohio, campaigning for State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who’s running to be one of Rubio’s 99 colleagues next year. Mandel is the first 2012 endorsement by Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC. The junior senator from Florida reportedly is busy finishing his memoirs, is deeply concerned with image control, and has hired an investigator to look into his own background – that’s a lot of behind-the-scenes machinations for a gentleman who insists he wants nothing to do with the vice presidency.
5) Bobby Jindal. Louisiana’s charismatic governor faces a tough choice. He endorsed Rick Perry’s presidential campaign (the Texas governor is long departed from the race, and is now campaigning for Gingrich). Who does Jindal support in his state’s upcoming primary? Snubbing Romney might be regrettable, come the “veepstakes” speculation. What if he snubs Santorum, only to see Romney lose the state? Or there’s the Gingrich option, given the Perry connection. Perhaps Jindal takes his cue from Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who let it be known that he cast his ballot for Santorum – though the governor refused to make an official endorsement before Tuesday’s vote.
6) Gone But Not Forgotten: American Samoa. The media focused on Alabama and Mississippi. Hawaii’s first-ever GOP caucuses received scant attention (as in Alabama, former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, currently a Senate candidate, took a pass on endorsing a presidential hopeful). But what about American Samoa, which also caucused on Tuesday? In case you’re curious as to how it’s done in the far flungs of the Pacific: about 50 Republicans gathered at the local Toa Bar & Grill to decide how to allot the territory’s 9 delegates (and 3 alternates). Why such a low turnout? Because local elected officials don’t run on party lines. Suggesting that, when it comes to setting aside partisanship and getting beyond the gridlock brought on by party i.d., American Samoa might be ahead of time, even if it is furthest to America’s west.