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Romney team sees plus in Gingrich's persistence

The Romney campaign has invested tens of millions of dollars trying to crush Gingrich. But Gingrich’s resilience has so far allowed Romney to dodge the head-to-head competition that Santorum has been craving.
Image: Newt Gingrich
Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at the Gulf Coast Energy Summit in Biloxi, Miss., March 12.Rogelio Solis / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

Mitt Romney has tried for weeks to snuff out Newt Gingrich’s presidential ambitions, but his stubborn survival has become a welcome relief for Mr. Romney.

If Mr. Romney has a chance of winning the Alabama primary on Tuesday — his advisers believed the odds were strong enough to arrange a last-minute campaign visit on the eve of the election — it is largely because Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy remains alive.

The Romney campaign and its well-financed allies have invested tens of millions of dollars trying to crush Mr. Gingrich over the last two months. But Mr. Gingrich’s resilience has so far allowed Mr. Romney to dodge the head-to-head competition that Rick Santorum has been craving.

The Alabama and Mississippi primaries will not settle the Republican nominating contest, but the results could help determine whether Mr. Romney is able to sidestep what he has feared most: a dominant, singular rival with the ability to unify the ranks of conservatives who have been slow in warming to the notion of Mr. Romney becoming the party’s presidential nominee.

Mr. Romney, who marked his 65th birthday on Monday, was in a jaunty mood during a stop on the Gulf Coast. He made clear that he was not certain just how self-assured he should be.

“You might be shaking the president’s hand,” Mr. Romney told a man in Mobile, where a rainstorm forced his supporters to seek shelter on the porch of a cafe. As he reconsidered how confident his remark sounded, he added: “Then again, you might not. But I hope you are.”

A week after Mr. Romney described Alabama and Mississippi as an “away game” and his aides played down his chances here, the contests have come alive as a fiercely contested three-way race. A key factor behind the sudden competitiveness was the revival of Mr. Gingrich.

“Gingrich is the best thing Romney has going for him here,” said Natalie Davis, a professor of political science and a pollster at Birmingham Southern College, who was in the audience here Monday night at a candidate forum featuring Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum.

As Mr. Gingrich strode onto the stage at the Alabama Theater here, pausing for a moment to bask in the standing ovation from about 2,500 Republicans, he faced a critical juncture in his presidential bid. A victory in either Alabama or Mississippi — or both, as he has predicted — would inject fresh energy into his candidacy and most likely keep the race going until summertime.

But a loss would amplify the conservative sentiment, particularly among Mr. Santorum and his supporters, that Mr. Gingrich’s prolonged candidacy was simply helping Mr. Romney.

“The primary really matters. Your vote really matters,” Mr. Gingrich said Tuesday. “I hope you will decide having an experienced leader who is capable of taking Obama head-on is what we need as a party and what we need as a country.”

As the Republican presidential campaign has accelerated into a state-by-state fight for delegates, the battle between Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich has become a key subplot in the race. The back-to-back appearances by the two rivals at the forum on Monday evening underscored the point that the next development in the Republican campaign is largely about these two contenders.

Neither Mr. Romney nor Representative Ron Paul of Texas accepted the state party’s invitation to the forum. So the audience sized up Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich, who took their places across the stage from an ornate red and gold Wurlitzer organ.

The evening at the century-old theater opened with organ music, along with thunderous applause when the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party urged voters to focus on the long-term goal to “replace Barack Obama in the White House.”

Mr. Gingrich conceded that the race had often been an uphill challenge.

“It’s pretty difficult to raise money when you’re dead,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd. He added, “We stayed in the race for two reasons: I do not believe the other two candidates can beat Barack Obama.”

Without mentioning his rivals by name, Mr. Santorum asked Republicans to disregard those who predict that he cannot win. He argued that he was the authentic conservative in the race and closed his speech with a message for Republicans: “Trust your own hearts and your heads.”

Alabama and Mississippi are receiving an unexpected burst of national attention for their primaries. Both states are reliably Republican in general elections, so voters here said they were delighted by the spotlight, even if it shined awkwardly at the candidates’ attempts to connect with a Southern audience.

Mr. Romney, who drew criticism last week for mentioning a newfound love of “cheesy grits,” noted his appreciation Monday for catfish. Talking football on sports radio, he said “the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets — both owners are friends of mine.” He also joked that he was looking forward to a local resident taking him hunting. “You can show me which end of the rifle to point,” he said.

William Youngblood, a real estate agent and investor in Mobile who came to see Mr. Romney, was unimpressed by the effort to play down-home. “He’s a nerd; he’s not a folksy guy,” he said.  “He can’t sing.  Probably can’t dance.  So what?”

He said Mr. Romney had something more important: leadership skills.

“We need a guy who can get us up the hill,” Mr. Youngblood said. “And whether he knows anything about grits or not is not my No. 1 priority.”

Jeff Zeleny reported from Birmingham, and Trip Gabriel from Biloxi, Miss.

This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.