Jim Young / Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum addresses supporters at his "Super Tuesday" primary election night rally in Steubenville, Ohio, March 6, 2012.
Rick Santorum's long-term campaign strategy is to upend the trajectory of the GOP primary, and snatch the Republican presidential nomination away from Mitt Romney.
But his more pressing, immediate concern involves winning on Saturday in Kansas, and on Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi, by which he could finally push Newt Gingrich out of the race.
Santorum would still face long odds to become the Republican nominee, but any march to Tampa would be less impeded if Newt Gingrich were to exit. But the former speaker has suggested he won’t voluntarily drop out of the race before Tuesday, but by describing both contests as “must-win” affairs, he opened the door to being forced out by virtue of a loss in either state.
"The ability for conservatives to win the Republican nomination is greatly diminished by Gingrich in the race," said Stuart Roy, an adviser to the Red, White and Blue Fund, a pro-Santorum super PAC. "That's why we're investing in Mississippi and Alabama. We can win, and a win in either state would show the need for Gingrich to leave."
To that end, the super PAC went on air with ad buys in both Mississippi and Alabama totaling more than a combined $1 million. Their spot goes after both Gingrich and Romney, whose numbers with Republicans in both states are judged to be, at a minimum, positive enough that he might be able to squeak by in one of the contests if his campaign were to compete aggressively.
Santorum seems to understand the importance of these states, which fall in the immediate wake of Super Tuesday.
"We have to do well in Kansas -- no, we have to win in Kansas, and win big," he said during a speech on Wednesday afternoon in Lenexa.
And he alluded to the need to dispatch Gingrich in a speech last night in Mississippi. "If we win Mississippi, this will be a two-person race," Santorum told supporters in Jackson. "And if it is a two-person race, we will nominate a conservative as president of the United States."
In many ways, Romney has been the beneficiary of a not having had to face a single opponent during the primary who managed to rally conservatives. Gingrich and Santorum each traded opportunities as the chief conservative candidate, a fight which has allowed Romney to accrue a sizable enough delegate advantage that his campaign is now beginning to argue that he’s Romney is the inevitable Republican nominee.
Polls of two of the most competitive Super Tuesday states belie the argument that, if Gingrich were out of the race, Santorum might have enough support to beat Romney. The former Massachusetts governor won 43 "somewhat conservative" voters in the Ohio primary, but if Santorum's 33 percent share and Gingrich's 16 percent share were combined, Santorum would have the advantage. If Santorum and Gingrich were to add even together their share of the "moderate" vote in Ohio, they would have only trailed Romney by 2 percent in Ohio among moderates, who made up 1 in 5 Ohio primary voters.
And in Tennessee, a state which Santorum won but all three major candidates contested, just 43 percent of primary voters saw Romney as the candidate best suited to beat President Barack Obama in November. The voters apparently unconvinced of Romney's electability split between Santorum (25 percent) and Gingrich (21 percent).
That's all to assume, though, that Santorum would automatically inherit Gingrich voters if the former speaker were to leave the race. And it isn't clear, either, that Gingrich would necessarily offer his endorsement to Santorum -- a gesture that would presumably goad supporters of Gingrich to filter their energy his way.
Of course, any focus by Santorum to knock out Gingrich on Tuesday would be scuttled if both of them lose to Romney. A poll of likely voters in Tuesday's primary found Santorum leading, at 22.7 percent, followed by Romney at 18.7 percent and Gingrich at 13.8 percent. The Alabama State University poll was conducted, though, before Super Tuesday, and has a 4.4 percent margin of error.
Adding to that is the strategy pursued by a pro-Romney super PAC, which has not let up in its attacks against Santorum in advertising for Tuesday's two primaries.
That may be because Romney supporters view a divided conservative base as beneficial, at least until they can manage a stranglehold on the nomination.
"If he wins both states, he may well stay around," Roy said of Gingrich and the Tuesday states, highlighting the importance for Santorum in drawing the race into a one-on-one showdown against Romney come next Wednesday.