After he skewered a doubting news media and a hostile GOP “establishment” on Tuesday night, a crusty — yet cheerful — Newt Gingrich concluded his victory in the Georgia presidential primary with a vow to carry his fight into Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi.
By the time the sun had come up on Wednesday, Kansas — which holds caucuses on Saturday — had been dropped from the Gingrich itinerary. And campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond acknowledged that the former U.S. House speaker had been reduced to a Deep South strategy.
Gingrich’s hopes of keeping his presidential ambitions on this side of reality now rely on his ability to cut a swath of victories from South Carolina to Texas. Somewhat like General Sherman in reverse — except that Sherman didn’t finish third in Tennessee.
To remain a credible candidate, Hammond acknowledged, Gingrich will have to win both Alabama and Mississippi next Tuesday.
Not place. Win.
The image that comes immediately to mind: A 1994 Camaro charging into a cul-de-sac.
First, there are the limitations foisted on a candidate by the very phrase. “Saying you’ve got a Southern strategy — it’s like saying you’re for states’ rights,” said Steve Anthony, who teaches political science at Georgia State University.
Republicans in the Georgia Senate may still enjoy the occasional debate over nullification, but it is not a profitable topic of conversation in other regions of the country.
Then there’s the matter of reliability. Aside from Sherman, and Richard Nixon’s 1968 bid for the White House, Southern strategies are woefully unpredictable things.
Back in 1986, Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy joined hands with leaders from several other states in the region and created the multi-state presidential primary that came to be called Super Tuesday.
“It was an effort to force politicians to pay attention to the South,” said Anthony, who at the time was Murphy’s chief of staff.
A fierce Democrat, Murphy harbored hopes that a Southern hurdle could lure someone like then-Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia into a 1988 contest that would end with a national convention in Atlanta.
Instead, Al Gore jumped in. The young senator from Tennessee quickly found himself shellacked in Georgia — and several other states — by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. A fellow from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, was crowned the Democratic nominee in Atlanta.
It didn’t end well.
A Republican parallel may now be in the works. Rick Santorum may have been handed his hat by Gingrich in Georgia — unofficial returns indicate he won only three of the state’s 76 delegates. But the former Pennsylvania won three states to Gingrich’s one on Super Tuesday: Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota.
On Wednesday, Santorum didn’t ignore Kansas — and still managed to make it to Mississippi. He’ll be in Alabama on Thursday.
Of the pair, neighboring Alabama may be an easier win for Gingrich. Not because Huntsville has a space camp, but because it’s not Mississippi — where the family of former Gov. Haley Barbour still hold sway.
Henry Barbour, the governor’s nephew and a member of the Republican National Committee, is a former supporter of Texas Gov. Rick Perry — and now a Romney backer.
Two months ago, during the South Carolina campaign, Henry Barbour declared that a Gingrich nomination could lose more than a race for the White House. He still thinks so. “When the top of the ticket is erratic, it makes it dangerous for the majority in the [U.S.] House, and could keep us from winning the Senate,” Barbour said Wednesday.
The RNC member gives Santorum the edge in both Mississippi and Alabama, but declares that Romney has a decent chance of finishing second in Mississippi.
But neither state should be used as a measure of how a GOP nominee would fare against President Barack Obama — that’s what Michigan and Ohio were for, Barbour said.
Chances are that, come August, a former Massachusetts governor will still be handed the Republican nomination in Tampa. But Gingrich’s Deep South strategy serves as a reminder the GOP frontrunner has yet to finish strong in a contested Southern state. (Tuesday’s Virginia match-up between Romney and Ron Paul doesn’t count.)
Yet there were bright spots for Romney.
On Tuesday in Tennessee, Romney finished an unimpressive 50,000 votes behind Santorum — but he won Nashville.
In Georgia, Romney also finished a distant (26 percent) second. But he won Fulton and DeKalb counties. And Savannah. Though Romney generated 57,523 fewer votes than he did in 2008, he still finished first in two congressional districts, including the 6th District in north metro Atlanta, once represented by Gingrich.
That’s not a Deep South strategy. But it is a Suburban South strategy, and in the end, Romney may have to be satisfied with that.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider