The showdown between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich over which candidate is the true "conservative alternative" to Mitt Romney was supposed to be the big story in Tuesday's GOP contests in Alabama and Mississippi — but polls show the former Massachusetts governor is poised to rewrite the narrative that he can't win in the Deep South.
Mr. Romney, a Mormon from a Northeast state, expected a degree of difficulty in the South — at one point, he acknowledged that the Alabama and Mississippi contests represented "an away game." But polls in both states show Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich running neck-and-neck, with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas bringing up the rear.
"I see a real close three-person race," said Richard C. Fording, political science professor at the University of Alabama. "There is a scenario for Romney to win, and I wouldn't be surprised if he did. That would be a big symbolic victory for him. Symbolic in that at least he could claim he won a deep red state in the South."
Mr. Santorum bolstered his argument over the weekend that he is best equipped to go head-to-head with Mr. Romney after easily defeating the former Massachusetts governor in the Kansas caucuses.
Mr. Santorum won 33 of the state's 40 delegates, pushing him into second place, ahead of Mr. Gingrich, in the chase for the 1,144 delegates needed to wrap up the Republican nomination.
In addition to Kansas, the former senator from Pennsylvania has won caucuses in Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota and North Dakota, as well as primaries in Tennessee and Oklahoma and a nonbinding primary in Missouri.
Mr. Gingrich has won two Southern states, emerging victorious in South Carolina and Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years. The former House speaker predicted victory in Alabama and Mississippi, and suggested that he plans to stay in the race no matter what happens Tuesday.
Both men, though, have fallen well behind Mr. Romney in the overall delegate count. The former governor has collected more delegates than all of his rivals combined. The Romney camp has made the case that it is nearly impossible for another candidate to get the delegates needed to secure the nomination.
According to the Associated Press count, Mr. Romney is leading the pack with 454; Mr. Santorum has 217; Mr. Gingrich, 107; and Mr. Paul, 47.
It's a big enough lead that the Romney camp has decided the candidate has nothing more to gain from debating his rivals: a Romney spokesman announced Monday that the former Massachusetts governor is passing on next Monday's GOP debate in Portland, Ore.
Sponsors, including The Washington Times, haven't decided whether the debate will go on as scheduled, but since a Feb. 22 faceoff in Arizona, a CNN-sponsored debate in Georgia and a Politico-sponsored debate in California have also been scratched.
Many Republican insiders and political observers say the only realistic way left to block Mr. Romney is to trigger a floor fight at the Republican National Convention — a scenario that is possible if Mr. Romney comes up short of the 1,144 delegates needed to seal the nomination.
That would give conservatives another chance to unite behind one candidate.
Mr. Santorum talked about that prospect during an appearance Monday on NBC's "Today."
"When we go to this convention, if that's where we end up, it's a conservative party," he said. "If an opportunity provides itself at an open convention, they are not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor."
Campaigning in Biloxi, Miss., later in the day, he also suggested, again, that it was time for Mr. Gingrich to exit the race. "People of Mississippi and Alabama want a conservative. If they want a conservative nominee for sure, they can do that by lining up behind us and making this race clearly a two-person race outside of the South," he said, hours before appearing with Mr. Gingrich at a candidate's forum hosted by the Alabama Republican Party in Birmingham.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, swung through Mobile, Ala., with Jeff Foxworthy, the comedian who is known for his "You might be a redneck" jokes.
The front-running candidate poked fun at his past descriptions of his hunting prowess, saying he hoped to go hunting with an Alabama friend who "can actually show me which end of the rifle to point."
His supporters tried to downplay expectations.
"Romney is clearly the underdog in states like Mississippi and Alabama, but he is putting up quite a fight and has a chance to pull off the upset," said Henry Barbour, Republican national committeeman for Mississippi and a supporter of Mr. Romney.
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.
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