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None of the next seven contests that will select delegates look tailor-made for Gingrich, so it won’t be until March 6, Super Tuesday, that he can show electoral strength. Missouri’s Feb. 7 primary won’t select delegates, but even there, Santorum will be on the ballot, not Gingrich.
A month from now, Gingrich might look even weaker, and the Romney bandwagon could pick up steam as previously undecided voters decide to support the man who they figure will become the party’s eventual nominee.
If that happens, Super Tuesday, with a roster of states less opportune for Gingrich than you might think, could virtually end his candidacy instead of resuscitate it.
Yes, the former Speaker should do well in Georgia and probably in Oklahoma and Alaska. But he won’t be competing in one of three Southern states (Virginia), and his prospects in the third, Tennessee, are uncertain.
Tennessee, after all, is really two or three states in one. Eastern Tennessee is mountain Republican, the kind of place filled with Republicans such as Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker. Romney should do well there. The rest of the state is more Southern and conservative, though there are pockets of more moderate and establishment Republicans around Memphis and the growing Nashville suburbs.
In battles over the years between “very conservative” and “somewhat conservative” Republican candidates, the more moderate (stylistically, at least) GOP candidates have tended to win. And that has to be worrisome for Gingrich strategists.
If Romney wins two Southern states March 6 — Virginia and Tennessee — and carries Massachusetts, Ohio and a number of other obvious states that day, it will be harder for Gingrich to argue at all persuasively that he has any chance of winning the Republican nomination.
Given the nature of the national media’s coverage of the race, the importance of financial backers in a presidential race and the likelihood that even some of Gingrich’s most loyal supporters will start to suggest that he is doing himself no good by staying in a race that is already over, the ex-Speaker might not feel the same way he did Tuesday night about taking his fight all the way to Tampa.
And if he does remain in the race, he may well adjust his tactics, away from criticizing Romney and more toward simply trying to establish himself as a leader of the conservative cause in the GOP.
Of course, the roller-coaster nature of the race so far means that a few more twists and turns are possible. A surprise revelation or a mistake by a candidate could turn things around. There is no need to count anyone out of the race just yet.
But now the burden clearly is on Gingrich — and Santorum — to change the narrative and the trajectory of the Republican contest. If they can do that, the race can go on for months for one or both of them. If they can’t, they might find that they become less and less relevant — to the media, to their funders and, yes, even to the voters.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.