The race for the Republican nomination could be on the cusp of a shake-up with aides to Newt Gingrich whispering for the first time that he needs to win in two southern states voting next week or face leaving the field.
The prospects for the former House speaker in Alabama and Mississippi, which vote on Tuesday are uncertain. A new Alabama poll shows Rick Santorum with a slight lead over Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. It puts Mr Gingrich almost 10 points down in third position.
Mr Gingrich has an obstinate streak and much will depend on his donors. But his withdrawal, after next Tuesday or even before, would significantly boost Mr Santorum who would no longer have to share the conservative vote with him and might have a more realistic shot at closing the delegate gap with Mr Romney.
“Were Newt Gingrich to suspend his campaign now, and endorse Rick Santorum, he could provide that unity and, through such a great act of statesmanship, open a new chapter in his storied political career,” Richard A Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com said in a statement.
Survival for Mr Gingrich has meant relying on a southern strategy, itself born out of his convincing win in South Carolina in January. While he prevailed in Georgia, which he represented in Congress for years, he did worse than expected this week in other southern states like Tennessee.
The super-PAC for Santorum on Wednesday urged Mr Gingrich to withdraw and said yesterday it would spend “well over half a million” dollars in TV spots in Alabama and Mississippi. “On the heels of our call for Newt Gingrich to unite conservatives by exiting the race, now we are investing heavily in the next two primary states to ensure that happens with a Santorum victory,” Stuart Roy, an advisor to the PAC, said.
The Romney campaign took its six-out-of-10 ‘Super Tuesday’ record as the moment to nudge all of his rivals to get out of the way arguing it would take an “act of God” for them to catch up with his delegate numbers. Mr Santorum hit back quickly. “What won’t they resort to, to try to bully their way through this race?” he asked. “If the governor now thinks he’s now ordained by God to win, then let’s just have it out.”
But the burial of Mr Gingrich may not be what Mr Romney wants. Had the speaker gone earlier, it is arguable that Mr Santorum would have taken states he lost to Romney by tiny margins, like Ohio and Michigan.
A last-minute cancellation of campaign appearances yesterday in Kansas, which has caucus voting Friday, sparked speculation that the Gingrich campaign was already winding down. More likely, it was a sign that he accepts that he has to focus on Mississippi and Alabama to avoid calamity there next week.
Austin Barbour, a Mississippi native and a member of the Romney national finance team, was among those saying Mr Gingrich would not make the grade next week in states that a while ago favoured him. “Newt is popular in Mississippi, and had Mississippi come right after South Carolina, no question he would’ve won, but it didn’t,” he said. “Now I think it’s a race where Santorum is probably the favourite.”