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First Thoughts: Big stakes on Tuesday

Big stakes on Tuesday for Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich… Could Romney have written off Alabama and Mississippi (and focused instead on, say, Illinois)?... NBC’s updated delegate count: Romney 377, Santorum 146, Gingrich 112, and Paul 31… Paul admits his crowds haven’t translated at the ballot box… Is Obama’s good luck beginning to change?... New WaPo/ABC poll shows that gas prices have had an effect on his standing, while the killing of civilians in Afghanistan doesn’t help the mission there, either.

*** Big stakes on Tuesday: After the weekend contests where Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum fought to a delegate draw -- with Santorum winning Kansas, and with Romney winning Guam, the Northern Marianas Islands, and more delegates out of Wyoming -- we now turn to Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. And the stakes, once again, are pretty high for the candidates. Romney sneaking out a win in either of the contests would prove that he can win in the South and that conservative GOP voters are beginning to coalesce around his candidacy. But losses in them would confirm that Romney continues to have problems with these voters and -- more importantly -- that the primary season will last through April if not longer. For Santorum, wins in both Alabama and Mississippi would prove that he's the chief conservative alternative to Romney, and that he has the momentum to keep this race going. But losing them would suggest his campaign is running out of gas. And for Gingrich, winning both states would keep his candidacy alive, but losses in these southern states would reveal that he’s become a political zombie, propped up solely by Sheldon Adelson and the pro-Gingrich Super PAC. Those are the stakes for tomorrow.

Don Emmert / AFP - Getty Images

Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich now turn to Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi.

*** Could Romney have written off Alabama and Mississippi? And right now, we have no idea how tomorrow’s races will play out. The polling has been all over the place, while last week’s Super Tuesday contests in Tennessee and Oklahoma suggest that Santorum should be the favorite and Romney and Gingrich the underdogs. If Romney ends up losing both primaries, it will raise this question: Did he make a mistake by campaigning too much -- and thus raising the stakes -- in a region where he’s struggled. After all, he’s campaigned aggressively in both Mississippi and Alabama (with comedian Jeff Foxworthy today), and he and the pro-Romney Super PAC have dropped nearly $2 million in advertising in these two states, vastly outspending the competition. Yes, win or lose, Romney is likely to pick up delegates in these states. But he also could have written them off and campaigned instead in Illinois, where a new Chicago Tribune/WGN poll shows him narrowly leading Santorum, 35%-31%. It appears Romney’s over-performance in both public and private polls in Tennessee convinced the campaign that it had a shot in the Volunteer State only to lose it by a bigger margin than any late poll had predicted. Just something to keep in mind.

Mitt Romney added a last minute campaign stop in Mobile, Alabama, which advisers says was in recognition of the campaign's belief that he could still pick up a win in that state on Tuesday. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Updated delegate count: Over the weekend, according to NBC News, Rick Santorum won 36 delegates (33 in Kansas and three in Wyoming), while Mitt Romney won 35 (25 in the island territories, seven in Kansas, and three additional delegates in Wyoming). That brings the NBC delegate to Romney 377, Santorum 146, Gingrich 112, and Paul 31. Remember, our delegate count is based on what the local and state parties are doing -- not simply allocating blindly if the process between the caucus and the state convention is vastly different, which in many cases it is.

*** Paul’s crowds haven’t translated at the ballot box: By the way, Paul has still yet to win a contest. And he addressed this on Saturday while in Missouri. “Some days I wished I could understand exactly why these crowds of three and four and sometimes five thousand people coming out doesn’t translate into more votes,” he said, per NBC’s Anthony Terrell. “I’m just wondering, why that happens. The one thing I know is the revolution is alive and well and they will not stop us!” The words of a candidate who is starting to have doubts as to why he’s still running…

*** On the trail: On his 65th birthday today, Romney is in Alabama, where he campaigns with comedian Jeff Foxworthy in Mobile… And Gingrich and Santorum both stump in both Mississippi and Alabama, where they both attend a Gulf Coast Energy Summit in Biloxi, MS and a state GOP event in Birmingham, AL.

*** Is Obama’s luck beginning to change? President Obama has been a pretty lucky man these first few months of 2012. The U.S. economy and the labor market have been picking up steam; Republicans appeared to have overplayed their hands on social issues (like contraception and abortion); and the GOP primary race has damaged the party’s brand. But in the past 24 hours, we’ve received a couple of reminders that luck -- especially regarding things outside your control -- can change. The first: a new Washington Post/ABC poll showing that the rising gas prices seemed to have dented Obama’s standing. “Disapproval of President Obama’s handling of the economy is heading higher — alongside gasoline prices — as a record number of Americans now give the president “strongly” negative reviews on the 2012 presidential campaign’s most important issue,” the Washington Post writes of its poll, which has Obama’s approval rating now at 46% and has Romney up by two points in a head to head. Although gas prices do change (and the price of oil today has fallen), they do impact a president’s approval rating. And let’s not forget the GOP’s message discipline on this issue; does an hour go by without Republicans putting out a hit on Obama and gas prices? *** UPDATE *** Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz emails First Read to argue that, per his observations, high gas prices really don't impact a president's approval rating.

*** Less and less support for the war in Afghanistan? And then there are the issues overseas, which can change a president’s fortunes overnight. Keep a close eye on how the news that a U.S. Army sergeant killed at least 16 civilians (nine of them children) in Afghanistan could change opinion on that issue. And this comes after some in the U.S. military mistakenly burned the Koran, and it comes as the Obama administration is hoping to make an orderly exit from Afghanistan. The political reaction we’ve heard from both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum on these civilian killings suggests that there is less and less American support for the war there. What little appetite the public had for Afghanistan might get even smaller.

Countdown to Alabama, Hawaii, and Mississippi: 1 day
Countdown to Election Day: 239 days

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