Alabama and Mississippi: Primary Day In the South

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It isn't exactly Super Tuesday today, but the four candidates for the Republican nomination for president are chasing momentum - and 119 delegates - going into the four primaries being held today in Alabama, Mississippi, Hawaii and American Samoa.

Recent polling indicates that Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are in a statistical dead heat in Mississippi and Alabama, the two primaries today with more meaningful delegates tallies up for grabs: 50 in Alabama and 40 in Mississippi, all awarded proportionally. This means more than one candidate could emerge on Wednesday with delegates from each of these states.

In addition to offering the largest delegate prizes, Alabama and Mississippi are important trump cards for the remaining GOP candidates, who are all trying to build on their cases that they would indeed be the best nominee to represent the party. Party leaders argue that the south is an important region for any Republican candidate to win.

"If you don't win the South, you don't win the nomination" Sue Everhart, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party said  in an interview. 

Of these three candidates , Gingrich might have the most to gain by winning these states in terms of momentum. More than two months into the primary season Gingrich has only won two states- one of which was his home state of Georgia.

"Gingrich wants to prove that he can win outside of Georgia," said ABC News Political Director Amy Walter.

Gingrich has spent a lot of time campaigning in the two states, and he has lobbied the argument put forth by Sue Everhart against GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, saying that if Romney can't win that region,  he won't be the nominee.

Romney and Santorum also have something to prove by winning these states. Romney is looking to show that he can indeed seal the deal with the more conservative, Evangelical wing of the party, which is stronger in the South. Santorum is looking to further his argument that he's the true alternative to Romney, and build on his win in Kansas over the weekend.

"Santorum wants a win so he can solidify his standing as the "undisputed" conservative alternative to Mitt Romney" said  Walter. "And, Romney wants to put to bed the narrative that he can't win in southern states with large Evangelical populations."

Each of the Super PAC's supporting but legally barred from coordinating with the three aforementioned candidates have spent considerable amounts of money on ad buys in these two states. "Restore Our Future," the group supporting Romney, has spent the most money by far: $1.3 million in Alabama and roughly $940,000 in Mississippi, according to their FEC disclosures.

The figures for "The Red, White and Blue Fund," the group supporting Rick Santorum, and "Winning Our Future," the group supporting Gingrich are much lower than Restore Our Future, but they're still significant. The Red, White and Blue Fund has spent $275,000 on ad buys in Alabama and $223,000 on ad buys in Mississippi. Winning Our Future has spent a little over $299,000 in Alabama, and a little over $240,000 in Mississippi, per FEC disclosures.

There are key counties to watch in both of these primaries on Tuesday. In Alabama, Mobile and Baldwin counties will be very important. This is the part of the state where Arizona Sen. John McCain beat Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Romney placed second in these two counties.

The area also counts a large Catholic population, according to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Exit polls have shown that this is a group which tends to support Romney even though both Santorum and Gingrich are Catholic. In Michigan for example, Romney took 44 percent of the Catholic vote, where Rick Santorum took 37 percent. In Ohio Romney took 44 percent of the Catholic vote as well, and Santorum lagged behind with 31 percent. Large turnout in these populous counties will likely bode well for Romney with these figures in mind.

In Mississippi, the county to keep an eye on is Rankin county, which is located in the south central portion of the state and is part of the Jackson metropolitan area.  Growing fast, Rankin county is heavily Republican - McCain carried the county with 76 percent of the vote in the 2008 general election- and has the third highest per capita income in Mississippi according to the 2010 census report.

In 2008 Rankin cast the most votes of any county in Mississippi's primary. If that trend continues this year, and Romney can carry this county, his chances of winning the state will be good.

Hawaii and American Samoa host caucuses today as well, with a total of 29 delegates up for grabs. Twenty delegates are at stake in Hawaii, nine in American Samoa. Both caucuses are only open to registered Republican voters, according to party officials.

In 2008, McCain received the overwhelming majority of support in both Hawaii and American Samoa. Although none of the candidates have personally made visits to either locations, Romney Paul and Santorum have each sent their children to campaign for them in the Aloha state.

After Tuesday night the attention shifts back to the Midwest. Missouri will hold its caucus March 17, and the Illinois primary is scheduled three days after that, on March 20.