Does Rick Santorum's Southern Sweep Matter? (The Note)

(Image Credit: Eric Gay/AP Photo)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

"We did it again!" Rick Santorum told a cheering crowd in Lafayette, Louisiana last night, celebrating a pair of wins in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries.

And, indeed, Santorum did do it again. He defied expectations and polling numbers to come up with victories over his better-funded and better-organized challenger, Mitt Romney.

And again, it was Romney who ended the night on top.

Although Santorum's wins in both southern states were impressive especially when you consider that Romney and his super PAC allies outspent all the other candidates combined by almost double on the television airwaves, Romney still managed to amass more convention delegates than either Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

Romney scored wins in Hawaii and American Samoa, which held caucuses on Tuesday, giving him a haul of 41 delegates compared to 35 for Santorum, 24 for Gingrich and one for Ron Paul, according to ABC News' tally. (Several delegates in Alabama and Hawaii were yet to be allocated Wednesday morning.)

Notably, it was Gingrich, not Romney, who emerged as the runner-up in Alabama and Mississippi. Romney finished in third place in both states.

Predictably, there is a chorus of political observers who are calling for Romney to shake things up after his shutout in the South last night, but that seems unlikely.

"The lesson from yesterday's primaries?" one of Romney's top strategists, Eric Fehrnstrom tweeted this morning. "Even when Romney doesn't finish first, he is successfully executing against his plan."

And, to a large extent, he's right. Team Romney knows that if they stick to the plan, Romney is still in the best position to clinch the nomination. The former Massachusetts governor is sitting on top of a delegate lead that is nearly double Santorum's count and well over triple Gingrich's.

For Santorum to have a real shot at being more than a thorn in Romney's side as he plods along the path to Tampa, something has got to give - either Gingrich will have to heed calls to exit the race or Santorum is going to have to come up with a game changing move that give him a real shot at overtaking Romney.

Short of that, Romney still appears to have the upper-hand.

On "Good Morning America" today, ABC's John Berman took a closer look at how Rick Santorum fought his way to wins in the South. WATCH:

INSIDE THE EXIT POLLS.  Voters unimpressed with Mitt Romney's conservative credentials split between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in Alabama and Mississippi, leaning enough toward Santorum to give him a pair of wins, according to ABC News pollster Gary Langer. Half the voters in both Southern primaries branded Romney as "not conservative enough." If they'd only had one place to go, it might've been a Santorum or Gingrich romp. Instead, those voters divided between the two, by 44-39 percent in Alabama, 42-39 percent in Mississippi. That was enough for Santorum to win in both states - but perhaps by closer margins than he may have wanted, given his efforts to cement the evangelical and very conservative segments of the GOP vote. This was their home base.

If Gingrich took some of Santorum's votes, Santorum lost them. A week earlier, in Tennessee, he thrashed Gingrich among voters who doubted Romney's conservatism, 53-29 percent. This Tuesday, wins aside, the Santorum alternative lost some of that steam. Alabama and Mississippi voters, indeed, looked highly desirous of a cloned candidate built on the most appealing aspects of each of the top three contenders. (Ron Paul, not so much.) For  Santorum there was very broad support among voters looking for the "true conservative" and for "strong moral character" in a candidate, the latter an especially poor group for Gingrich.

PUERTO RICO PRIMER. Twenty-three delegates will be up for grabs when voters in the island commonwealth head to the polls this weekend, nearly as many as there were in more publicized battles in Michigan - 30 - and Arizona - 29, reports ABC's Matthew Jaffe. It should come as no surprise, then, that Romney and rival Rick Santorum are set to campaign there only days before the primary.  "Puerto Rico is important for candidates because of the number of delegates and the projection in Florida, and to a lesser extent, other states with growing numbers of people hailing from Puerto Rico," said Javier Ortiz, a Republican political strategist. Of the commonwealth's 23 delegates on offer, 20 will go to the candidate who wins more than 50 percent of Sunday's vote. That leaves three super delegates left and two have already endorsed Romney, including Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, with the third one backing Gingrich. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the delegates will be allocated proportionally. "All politics is local," Ortiz noted. "Romney has Governor Fortuno's endorsement and the impressive list of delegate candidates he lined up."


FROM THE LEFT… The Democratic National Committee released a new web video on Wednesday that accuses Mitt Romney of pandering "to the far-right" and aims to send a message to female voters: "American women cannot trust Mitt Romney to stand up for them," according to the DNC. The video highlights Romney's promise in an interview yesterday that he would "get rid" of Planned Parenthood. WATCH:

….AND THE RIGHT. "Republican voters turned out in full force in Alabama and Mississippi last night, well above 2008 GOP numbers, showing yet again that the party is energized to replace President Obama," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski wrote in a morning memo touting turnout numbers in yesterday's primaries. "There is no doubt we will have a battle-tested nominee who will be ready to take on this president who has an enthusiasm problem, is struggling in the polls, and his much-talked-about ground game appears it isn't all it's cracked up to be."



SANTORUM PLEDGES TO 'COMPETE EVERYWHERE.' Flanked by wife, Karen and three of his children, Rick Santorum hit Romney at a victory party Tuesday night in Louisiana, ABC's Shushannah Walshe reports. "People are saying you've been outspent and you know, everybody's talking about all the math and all the things in this race is inevitable," Santorum said. "Well, for someone who thinks this race is inevitable, he spent a whole lot of money against me for a race that was inevitable." He told supporters at a hotel Tuesday evening that his is a "grassroots campaign." "We will compete everywhere, we will compete everywhere," Santorum said. "The time is now for conservatives to pull together. The time is now to make sure, make sure that we have the best chance to win this election and the best chance to win this election is to nominate a conservative to go up against Barack Obama who can take him on in every issue." The candidate runs a campaign like none of his current competitors or even like the campaigns he ran previously: There is no bus, no headquarters, and a scaled down staff, all thanks to frugality. But there are also frequent expressions of pride that the campaign and candidate feel they can win with none of the expected trappings of a modern race for the White House. "Who would have ever thought in the age of media that we have in this country today that ordinary folks across this country can defy the odds day in and day out," Santorum said.

FLASHBACK: ROMNEY SAYS SANTORUM'S CAMPAIGN IS AT A 'DESPERATE END' Mitt Romney characterized GOP rival Rick Santorum's campaign as being "desperate," during an interview Tuesday afternoon, just hours before his losses in Alabama and Mississippi, ABC's Emily Friedman notes. Romney's remarks came during an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who asked the candidate about recent attack ads launched against him by the Santorum campaign. Romney noted that the ads have been deemed "baseless and wrong" by fact checking sources before elevating his rhetoric. "Sen. Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign and is trying to boost his prospects," said Romney.

ROMNEY AND HIS BACKERS POISED FOR ILLINOIS AD BLITZ. With Tuesday's Southern primaries in the rear view mirror, the candidates are already gearing up for battle in two of the month's remaining contests: Illinois and Louisiana. With recent polls showing Mitt Romney locked in a closer-than-expected race with Rick Santorum in Illinois, Romney's campaign is buying up air time ahead of the state's March 20 primary - to the tune of nearly $1 million. Romney is getting a big assist from the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, which has already purchased more than $900,000 worth of airtime, according to Federal Election Commission filings. And sources tracking ad buys indicate the super PAC has bought up as much as $1.5 million more in TV time in just the last week. More than half of that is being spent in the greater Chicago area. That means pro-Romney forces could wind up spending well over $3 million - and perhaps more - in Illinois. Illinois is an expensive state for television advertising, and neither the Santorum campaign nor the pro-Santorum super PAC, have yet to make any ad buys there. Instead, Santorum's team has invested a modest amount - just over $30,000 - on the airwaves in Louisiana, which holds its primary on March 24.

A TWO MAN RACE? NEWT SAYS NO. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich lost both Alabama and Mississippi to Rick Santorum Tuesday. But, as ABC's Elicia Dover notes, while Gingrich campaign advisers had called the two states "must-win" just last week, more recently he said that no matter what the outcome Tuesday, he would still soldier on to other primaries and all the way to the convention in Tampa. "Because this is proportional representation we are going to leave Alabama and Mississippi with a substantial number of delegates, increasing our total going toward Tampa," Gingrich said, noting that delegates will ultimately decide the GOP nominee. Romney has a large delegate lead, but Gingrich said tonight's third-place finishes will hurt the former Massachusetts governor. "I emphasize going to Tampa, because one of the things tonight proved is that the elite media's effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed," he said.

NOTED: Friend of The Note and conservative political strategist Keith Appell offers his take on Tuesday night's results: "Newt has given it a great run but Rick Santorum has earned a mano a mano shot at Mitt Romney.  Santorum has demonstrated clear strength in the Midwest, West and South and he has earned the opportunity to take on Romney in a two-man race.  It is also abundantly clear from South Carolina to Georgia to Tennessee to Alabama and Mississippi that southern conservatives are thoroughly rejecting Mitt Romney.  In fact, it's clear that conservatives across the country are sending a clear message to the Republican establishment: 'nothing is over until we decide it is.'"

A SANTORUM-GINGRICH TICKET? "A senior adviser to Newt Gingrich told The Huffington Post Tuesday night the campaign likes the idea of Rick Santorum and Gingrich running on the same ticket for the presidency and vice presidency," reports the Huffington Post's Jon Ward. "'Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum would make a powerful team against Barack Obama,' the adviser said on the condition that his name not be used. "They have the capability to deny Gov. Romney the nomination.' The proposal comes after rumors of a Gingrich alliance with Texas Gov. Rick Perry surfaced earlier this week. It does not come off as a sign of confidence. Rather, it is an indication that the Gingrich campaign senses their candidate's position in the race slipping after the former House speaker's losses to Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama on Tuesday night."



@ByronYork : Gingrich campaign used to be about winning, or at least wanting to win. Now, it's solely about keeping Romney from magic number.

@marincogan : Romney's new 5-point plan sounds a lot like what he's been doing all along.

@JRubinBlogger : this weekend: 52 proportionate delegates in Mo and 23 winner take all in Puerto Rico.. does Romney win a majority again?

@jmartpolitico : My analysis: Sant is the alternative, Newt has no rationale, Mitt is forced to crisis-and-recovery mode yet again >

@jimacostacnn : Romney email announcing support of PA's Ridge is vintage Mitt - a slap at Santorum. But a moderate's endorsement after last night?



-Rick Santorum is on the trail in Puerto Rico ahead of their weekend Caucus. Santorum will hold a press conference with Puerto Rican Governor Luis Fortuno in Old San Juan. Santorum has also scheduled a town hall in San Juan.

-Newt Gingrich brings his campaign to Illinois which votes on March 20 th. Gingrich will speak with voters in Rosemont and Palatine, Illinois.

-Ron Paul will visit the University of Illinois in Champaign for a town hall meeting.

-Mitt Romney has three private fundraisers scheduled for New York City and Stamford, CT.

ABC's Josh Haskell (@HaskellBuzz)


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