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Frontrunners and riders: Four of the eight candidates who have led the GOP nomination polls, (left to right) Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum (Gage Skidmore) 

Mitt Romney shrugged off his defeats by Rick Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama on March 13, where he came in third behind Newt Gingrich in both contests, by describing them as "away games". At more than $2 million, his super-PAC, Restore Our Future, had outspent those supporting the other candidates by $4 to $1, concentrating on the negative advertising that has worked so demonstrably well in this campaign already. Nonetheless, he lost badly in the Deep South. Since he remains the favourite to win the Republican nomination in Tampa in August, the question must be: will the general election  be an "away game" for him too?

Until quite late on the evening of March 13, Romney strategists were still believing their exit polling data rather than that of CNN and Fox News, and were expecting their man to win Mississippi and to run Santorum close in Alabama too. They assumed that Southerners would ignore the "favoured son" status of the Georgian, Gingrich, in order to vote for someone who was a genuine contender. Yet in a way, Gingrich's unexpectedly strong polling might work well for Romney, by keeping in the race a candidate who can't win but who does drain away conservative voters who would otherwise have supported Santorum. Ron Paul, who was squeezed down to 5 per cent, does much the same thing, which is why the Romney camp and the Paul camp get along with each other famously, despite having nothing in common ideologically.

In Mississippi and Alabama, where over 80 per cent of Republican voters describe themselves as born again or evangelical Christians, a Mormon who has flip-flopped on abortion was never going to do as well as a devout Roman Catholic who concentrates on social issues like Santorum. Only 57 per cent of Mississippians and 58 per cent of Alabamans told pollsters the economy was the number one issue that decided how they'd cast their vote, which was another indication that Romney would have problems down there. With the two conservative candidates Santorum and Gingrich racking up 70 per cent of the vote in both states, the race is increasingly looking like one between right-wingers who put their ideological purity before electability, and the rest of the Republican party who want anyone, even the unloved Romney, who can best appeal to independents and Democrats on November 6.

Yet for all that Mississippi and Alabama undoubtedly represented a bloody nose for Romney in the headlines, it was hardly disastrous: because their delegates were awarded proportionately he still picked up 23 delegates, against Santorum's 32 and Gingrich's 24. For historical reasons unconnected to population size, American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Marianas each send nine delegates. Romney has won 34 of the 36, so these tiny Pacific specks have actually garnered him more delegates than Santorum's two Deep South victories, yet with next to no coverage in the media because they were largely uncontested.  

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