Five Things To Watch For In Tuesday’s Alabama, Mississippi GOP Primaries

Alabama and Mississippi will play an unaccustomed high profile role Tuesday as each candidate for the Republican presidential nomination looks to voters in those states to give his candidacy a boost towards inevitability, if you’re Mitt Romney, or just keep their candidacies alive if you’re Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

So voters and analysts alike will be watching the two states closely Tuesday to gets the earliest sense possible of whether voters chose to go with the most electable candidate, which many have said is Romney, or the most conservative, a label Santorum and Gingrich says properly left to them.

Given the stakes at play, here’s a what to look for as the results come in Tuesday.

Does Mitt Romney finally win a Southern state or two? — It’s hard to think of northern Republicans since, say, the first Union generals of the Civil War, who’ve had as little success in the South as Romney. He failed to win the first Southern state to vote in the primaries — South Carolina in January — and the three that followed.

But Romney is showing surprising strength in Alabama and Mississippi, thanks to his organization and money. A win Tuesday in either of those states would end that string and allow Romney to boast that he can, indeed, win in the region that for more than a generation has been the Republican party’s crucial bastion.

What percentages do the candidates win? — Because the race for the Republican presidential nomination now boils down to a delegate chase, it will be important to look at the percentages of the vote each candidate wins in each state and the congressional districts within the states.

In Alabama, there are 50 total delegates at play — 26 at-large delegates, 21 congressional district delegates and three so-called automatic delegates.

If no candidate wins a majority of the statewide vote, which is likely given the four-way race which also includes Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the 26 at-large delegates will be awarded proportionally based on the percentage of the statewide vote each candidate receives so long as he gets at least 20 percent of the vote.

Similarly, if a candidate is able to garner more than half the votes in any of Alabama’s seven congressional districts, he will get all three of that districts assigned delegates. And if no one gets a majority, the candidate with the most votes gets two district delegates while the runner-up gets one.

Does Newt Gingrich extend his victories in the South? — Gingrich has said he must win in Alabama and Mississippi to remain viable. He eschewed campaigning in Kansas where caucuses were held over the weekend to spend his time instead in the two Deep South states with Tuesday primaries. If he wins one outright and does well in the second, that would give him a stronger argument for continuing. Short of that, it will look like the end of the road for his campaign.

How much do Santorum and Gingrich split the support of evangelicals and very conservative Deep South voters? — Both Santorum and Gingrich have been appealing to the same very conservative voters and religious voters. So it will be important to watch exit polls to see how much they split that vote which could help Romney.

How big a factor was rising gas prices to voters? — Gingrich has recently made his stand in Dixie by promising that he can get gas prices down to $2.50 a gallon amid rising gas prices that have hurt President Obama’s approval ratings. He has saturated the airwaves in Alabama and Mississippi with his message. Exit polls will likely ask voters about their concerns about the economy and gas prices and these may give us clues about the effectiveness of Gingrich’s strategy.

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