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7pm: Welcome to our live coverage of the Republican presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, in which three men are struggling to see who will come out on top. The polls suggest any one of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich has a chance of http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/political-geography-mississippi/ – and who wins what will determine the length of the GOP nomination race.

Polls close in both states at 8pm EST so it could be a mercifully short night compared to the marathons in Iowa and Ohio that the campaigns have had to endure so far this year.

We’ll be following the run-up to the count and then the results and reactions, so stayed tuned.

One thing we won’t be getting tonight is a speech from the Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, who is http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/election-2012/post/alabama-mississippi-primaries-no-romney-speech-likely/2012/03/13/gIQA86O79R_blog.html. That suggests his campaign is braced for bad news – especially as Romney spent the day campaigning in Missouri, which holds its vote on Saturday.

But don’t worry: Rick Santorum will speak to supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he has been campaigning ahead of that state’s primary on 24 March, and Newt Gingrich is to address his fans in Birmingham, Alabama.

Given the two races and the range of outcomes, here’s a preview of how things may shake out when the votes have been counted:

• Romney wins both Alabama and Mississippi: that could suddenly increase the pressure on Santorum and Gingrich to end their campaigns, since it would kill off their argument that Romney fails to appeal to Southern Republicans. In any case it would be a big boost for Romney and probably all but end the contest, to the relief of many in the GOP and media.

• Split decision: a Romney win in one and a loss to either Gingrich or Santorum in the other would be a blessing for the frontrunner but would probably fail to settle the matter – and the long slog towards winning the delegate majority would continue. Similarly, a brace of second places by Mitt with Santorum and Gingrich taking one state apiece

• Clean sweep by Santorum: the worst possible outcome for Romney, since it may force Gingrich out of the race, ending the handy divide and conquer routine that has helped him to date and making Santorum the unchallenged “Anyone-but-Mitt” candidate.

• Clean sweep by Gingrich: a bloody nose for Santorum may actually help Romney, since Gingrich is a weaker national candidate and far less appealing to Romney’s Achilles heel alliance of evangelicals and conservatives.

In all these scenarios the size of the vote share is also important: narrow losses of a few percentage points by Romney and a bag of delegates wouldn’t cause him any panic. But deep, double-digit losses and third-place showings could knock his campaign off its march towards the nomination.

So there we have it: four (or five) potential scenarios. Now all we have to do is wait for the voters of Alabama and Mississippi to finish voting.

In the meantime, a themed joke from a three-year-old:

Q: How can you spell Mississippi with only one i?

A: Close one of your eyes. (It works better out loud.)

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