Tuesday Contests Make-or-Break for Gingrich

March 12, 2012

Newt Gingrich during a February visit to Colorado

Today while most Americans are busy filling out their March Madness brackets, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is facing a different kind of sudden death elimination tournament.

For the former House Speaker – who has found himself in the position of both underdog and frontrunner numerous times throughout this tumultuous primary season – Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi are make or break.

A Gingrich win in both states would boost claims that he is the most viable of the “Anybody-but-Romney” candidates, while a loss in either would almost certainly put an end to his turbulent White House bid.

While much of the media coverage in recent weeks has portrayed Gingrich as an afterthought in the horserace between frontrunner Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, as of Friday Gingrich was actually in second place in the “bound delegate” count with 107 delegates, trailing Romney’s commanding count of 339.  Santorum, with 95 delegates, was in third.

Clearly mindful of the race’s shifting narrative, Gingrich last week elected to pull the plug on his Kansas effort, choosing instead to pursue a “southern strategy,” concentrating his efforts on scoring wins in Mississippi and Alabama.

Gingrich, who has been battling Santorum for the conservative support that both men need to defeat the better organized and funded Romney, has repeatedly tried to draw a distinction between himself and the former Pennsylvania Senator on the issue of labor unions, a key ideological battleground in a campaign dominated by concerns about jobs and the economy.

Alabama and Mississippi are “Right to Work” states, as are Georgia and South Carolina, the two states Gingrich has won so far.

The former Speaker has repeatedly taken aim at Santorum’s past pro-union leanings during his time as a U.S. senator, criticizing the Pennsylvanian’s opposition to a national “Right to Work Law” and support for the antiquated Davis-Bacon Act, which compels taxpayers to pay artificially inflated wage rates to union contractors on government projects.

Gingrich is betting that the “pro-union Republican” line of attack will help him carry the two southern contests, telling NBC’s David Gregory last week “I do think, outside of industrial states, having been a very big union senator, having voted against right-to-work, having voted for Davis-Bacon, which cost billions of dollars in order to prop up the unions and having voted for every minimum wage increase the unions wanted, Santorum has a harder time when he gets outside the industrial states.”

And so far it looks as though he may be right.

Gingrich, who won South Carolina and his home state of Georgia, remains formidable in both Mississippi and Alabama.  Public Policy Polling surveys released Monday show the former Georgia congressman with a slight lead over Romney and Santorum in the former, and a dead heat between the three men in the latter.

Nonetheless, Gingrich’s future viability may depend on the whims of his financial backers as much as it depends on Tuesday’s outcomes.

Winning Our Future, the pro-Gingrich super PAC, has spent some $11 million so far to keep the Gingrich campaign competitive.  And although the Las Vegas Sun recently reported that the “secondary motivation” of the PAC’s chief benefactor Sheldon Adelson is “to keep Santorum, with whom [Adelson] disagrees on social issues, from winning the nomination,” it remains to be seen whether or not the PAC will continue to pour money into the effort should Gingrich come up short on Tuesday.

So as they say in athletic venues, it all comes down to this — or at least for Newt Gingrich south of the Mason-Dixon line it does.

In addition to Mississippi and Alabama, Hawaii and American Samoa will hold primary contests on Tuesday.  Romney, who is coming off wins in the Pacific territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, is expected to fare well in both.

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