Bloomberg News

Gingrich Vow to Fight Hurts Santorum Bid to Take on Romney

March 14, 2012

Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista at an election night party on March 13, 2012 in Birmingham, Alabama. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista at an election night party on March 13, 2012 in Birmingham, Alabama. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Rick Santorum’s wins in Mississippi and Alabama may have done more damage to Newt Gingrich than to front-runner Mitt Romney.

Gingrich is vowing to stay in the presidential race as Santorum’s backers call for Republicans to unite behind their candidate.

Santorum’s victories last night affirmed his status as Romney’s main challenger. That left Gingrich and his allies to talk about how to get the former House speaker in position to be chosen as the nominee at the party’s national convention in August, rather than winning the race through state primaries.

“The dynamics have changed, and four candidates will arrive in Tampa on equal footing,” said Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to Winning Our Future, a political action committee supporting Gingrich’s candidacy. “Nobody plans to go into the convention in third, but this is our new reality.”

Tyler, who made his remarks in an interview today, said the new reality stems from the failure of any candidate to begin gathering enough delegates to win the nomination outright. A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination. Tyler said that after “jockeying” at the convention, Gingrich will emerge victorious.

For Romney, the leader in delegates, last night’s losses foreshadow a long and potentially bitter fight for the nomination.

Helping Romney

“Right now, Gingrich couldn’t be doing more to help Mitt Romney if he was a paid campaign worker for Mitt Romney,” said Richard Land, president of the Nashville, Tennessee-based Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “He should have dropped out a good while ago.”

Almost a year into Romney’s second presidential run, the results once again stoked doubts about the former Massachusetts governor’s ability to connect with the social conservatives and evangelical Christians who make up the backbone of the Republican Party.

And more than two months into primary voting, Santorum’s victories guarantee another hostile showdown next week -- this time in Illinois (USUSIL), where recent polls show a tightening race.

While Santorum is eager for that contest to be a head-to- head battle with Romney, Gingrich’s presence in the race continues to deny him that opportunity.

“There are a lot of calls today to say to conservatives and the Tea Party supporters, let’s unite behind Rick Santorum,” John Brabender, a senior strategist for Santorum, said today on CNN.

Time ‘To Exit’

The Alabama and Mississippi results show that while no one candidate is “closing the deal” with the party’s base, Gingrich’s campaign “is over,” Erick Erickson, a Republican strategist who has resisted Romney, wrote in his column on the Web site RedState.com.

“It is time for Newt Gingrich to exit,” Erickson wrote. “It is time for Santorum v. Romney, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Gingrich, speaking to supporters in Birmingham, Alabama, late yesterday, insisted he’d remain in the campaign and fight all the way to the party’s national convention in Tampa, Florida.

Still, with victories in only South Carolina (PCSTSC) and Georgia, the onetime Georgia congressman now faces a struggle for his political survival.

At his victory party in Lafayette, Louisiana, Santorum came closer than ever to calling on Gingrich to end his candidacy.

‘Pull Together’

“The time is now for conservatives to pull together,” he told cheering supporters gathered in a hotel ballroom. “The time is now to make sure that we have the best chance to win this election.”

Evangelicals made up the biggest bloc of the electorate in both the Mississippi and Alabama contests, with almost four of five voters identifying themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians and about three-quarters saying it mattered at least somewhat that a candidate shares their religious beliefs, according to exit polls.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and a Roman Catholic, won the backing of those voters in both states. At an election night celebration, a supporter asked the crowd to “take a knee” and pray for victories as they waited for the final results.

Outspent by Romney

Santorum’s wins came even though he was outspent once again by Romney. Of the 7,138 broadcast advertisements that aired in the two states in the past 30 days, 64 percent came from Romney or his political action committee, 21 percent were from Gingrich or his super-PAC, and 15 percent were from Santorum’s super-PAC, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

As the polls closed, Santorum displayed confidence about his chances, listening to a tribute song posted by supporters on YouTube as he ate dinner with his wife.

After addressing his election-night party, Santorum flew to Puerto Rico to woo Hispanic voters before a March 18 contest there.

From there, he heads to Illinois, where Santorum aides say they hope his latest wins will create a new opportunity for their campaign in a state where Romney has been favored.

A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll released over the weekend showed Romney backed by 35 percent of likely voters and Santorum by 31 percent, within the 4-percentage-point margin of error.

Mathematical Challenge

Even with last night’s victories, Santorum still faces a significant mathematical challenge.

His victories were minimal in terms of picking up convention delegates, garnering him at least 34. Romney picked up at least 40 delegates and Gingrich at least 24.

The partial allocation of delegates from last night’s contests left Romney with 494, according to Associated Press estimates, putting him closest to winning the 1,144 needed to capture the nomination. Santorum had 251, Gingrich 131 and Texas Representative Ron Paul, who finished fourth in both Alabama and Mississippi, 48.

To have a chance at the nomination, Santorum would have to win big majorities of the remaining delegates up for grabs.

“Any day with contests that passes that Santorum and Gingrich don’t cut into Romney’s lead is a win for Romney,” said Josh Putnam, a campaigns and elections specialist at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina.

Uncommitted Delegates

The next few weeks offer few chances for either Santorum or Gingrich to beat Romney, with races in New York, Maryland and other Northeastern states likely to favor the former Massachusetts (USUSMASS) governor.

To catch up, Santorum’s campaign plans to rely on picking up uncommitted delegates allocated in caucuses and converting those already bound to Gingrich, according to an internal memo leaked by the campaign earlier this week.

That strategy would force a decision at the party’s August convention, creating the possibility of a bruising internal fight less than three months before the general election.

“The longer this plays out, the more we move away from a contested race to a contentious race, and that’s not one that can heal itself at a convention,” said Putnam. “I don’t see it as a positive for the party.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net


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