Searching for relevancy in the South

With Mississippi and Alabama voting Tuesday, Southern Republicans will decide whether to join their cousins in South Carolina in backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, or to back one of the northern Republicans in the race.

The only Southerner still standing, Gingrich is facing a do-or-die moment Tuesday. He needs to win one or both of the region’s primaries to remain a relevant force in the nomination contest. But what does a Gingrich bulwark in the South say for the GOP if Mitt Romney goes on to win the party’s nomination to face President Obama?  

C&E asked Joel Sawyer, the former executive director of the South Carolina GOP who consulted on Jon Huntsman's 2012 bid earlier this year, for some insight into Tuesday’s contests in the South.

C&E: What does a Gingrich victory in Mississippi or Alabama mean for the primary race? 

Sawyer: It's a reminder of this being an incredibly unsettled field, and one without a clear frontrunner. Romney is the frontrunner, but he is miles away from locking this thing up. Right now, candidates are choosing to campaign where they can win. Rick Santorum campaigned in Kansas because he thought he could win. Gingrich is spending time in these Southern states because he thinks he's got a chance there.

C&E: Is Romney not able to win in the South?

Sawyer: People in the South want passion in their politicians. Romney's a tough sell. I don't think that he brings that same passion that southern voters are looking for.

C&E: But if Romney wins the nomination, won't that make it harder for down-ballot Republicans in the South to generate enthusiasm?

Sawyer: There's definitely going to be an enthusiasm gap between Romney's campaign and the Obama campaign. It's really up to the state-level Republican parties to create some energy and some buzz for their down-ticket candidates. 

C&E: How can they do that?

Sawyer: I think we'll probably see [that through] message differentiation. The presidential race is going to be the most nasty, negative one we have ever seen because President Obama [is] going to have a very difficult job selling positive accomplishments. Their only choice is to attack the Republican nominee. 

C&E: Back to the primary. Even if Gingrich wins one or both Southern contests on Tuesday, he's still a long way from winning the nomination. Does that mean South Carolina—which he won—is no longer the GOP kingmaker?

Sawyer: South Carolina, in some ways, has always been a firewall for insurgent candidates. In 2000, [George W.] Bush stopped the [John] McCain insurgency here. In 2008, McCain won here, stopping the [Mike] Huckabee insurgency. In this case, you have a much more bland race and a much more unsettled field. I think because there is so little excitement about these candidates, you have to throw the conventional wisdom out the window. I don't think this will effect South Carolina's importance in the long run.

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