Talk of a late-entering white knight candidate may have died down in light of Mitt Romney's victory in Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday, but it's far from smooth sailing for his campaign.
In five days, 10 states will hold their voting contests on March 6, the highly anticipated Super Tuesday. The Super Tuesday states -- Alaska, Idaho, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and Vermont -- are diverse in their demographics, and several larger states are expected to pose a challenge for the Romney campaign.
But the three Southern states -- Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee -- are seen as particularly important for the former Massachusetts governor, as each offers large delegate prizes to the victor. (A victory in Georgia brings 76 delegates; Oklahoma, 43; Tennessee, 58. That's a total of 177 of the 437 delegates at stake in Super Tuesday, or about about 41 percent.)
In addition to delegates, the Southern winner walks away from this contest with another important asset: bragging rights.
Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee are solid red states. A victory in these states constitutes proven approval from the Republican Party's base, approval that Romney still seeks and needs, and Santorum and Gingrich still actively try to claim.
Current polling shows Romney down in each of these three key states, and although state Republican Party leaders agree that the race is still fluid, Romney has his work cut out for him.
"Santorum has had a lead in Oklahoma in all of the recent polling over the past few weeks. Mitt's wins last night may give him a little bump, but it's probably too soon to really say how much of a bump," Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Matt Pinnell told ABC News.
"I think that a lot of voters have been watching and will continue through March 6 to make their final decision on whom they're going to vote for as presidential nominee," explained Tennessee Republican Party chairman Chris Devaney.
"I think in this state there probably are still a number of people who are still watching. Certainly it was a good night for Mitt Romney last night, but they'll continue to watch, and this group in Tennessee is an independent group. They went for Mike Huckabee in 2008, but it was a competitive race here, and I would expect that it will be competitive over the next week, leading into March 6.
"He's got to work the Southern states and work them well and get the message that Southerners want to hear," Sue Everhart, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Georgia, said of Romney.
Each state party leader highlighted the hurdles to be faced not only by Romney but by all the other candidates in each Southern state up for grabs on Tuesday.
In Tennessee, Devaney explained, a candidate has to appeal to a very broad base of Republican voters. In the eastern part of the state, the voting base is more traditional. In the suburban areas around Nashville and Memphis, there is a strong Tea Party presence. In the more rural areas, there are a lot of conservative Democrats who have switched parties in the past decade or so. A candidate must appeal to more than just one of these groups if they hope to claim a victory in Tennessee.