Mitt Romney had vowed to win Alabama, expected to put up a strong showing in Mississippi, and invested heavily to excel in yesterday's Deep South primaries. In effect, the former governor placed an expensive bet, assuming that victories here would end the nominating race altogether.
As the dust settled, it became clear that Romney lost that bet.
The night belonged to Rick Santorum, who eked out narrow wins in both Alabama and Mississippi, despite being outspent, and despite lacking meaningful campaign organizations. Looking ahead, the former senator can now plausibly make the case that the race for the Republican nomination is a two-person contest -- and given the GOP base's discomfort with and distrust of Romney, that's not a bad position to be in.
Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, staked his entire campaign on succeeding as a "son of the South" yesterday, and just last week, his spokesperson conceded these primaries were "must-win" contests. The former Speaker kept it close, but obviously came up short, effectively ending his campaign. Whether Gingrich formally drops out quickly remains to be seen, but as a practical matter, his ability to present himself as a credible contender disappeared last night.
And then there's Romney, the ostensible frontrunner. The night wasn't a total loss for the former governor -- he won Hawaii and the American Samoa caucuses, and picked up a fair number of delegates -- but after an aggressive effort in Alabama and Mississippi, he came in third in both.
When Gingrich said last night, "If you're the frontrunner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a frontrunner," the point was not without merit.
Romney is still the likely nominee, but when prominent voices in his party ask why he simply lacks the strength to overcome his weak challengers, his focus on delegates isn't much of an answer. As John Dickerson put it, Romney "is approaching the qualities of some cursed mythological figure who gets stronger on the outside while his insides decay: With each contest, Romney gains delegates but appears to get weaker."
What's more, the road ahead isn't exactly friendly. The Missouri caucuses are this Saturday, and Romney isn't expected to do well, and the Louisiana primary a week later should also be a tough haul. The Illinois primary on Tuesday will apparently become a major contest, but with Gingrich flailing, the former governor can no longer count on the anti-Romney vote being split.
Romney was confident the GOP race would, for all intents and purposes, be over as of this morning. It's not. It's an increasingly muddled picture, with no end in sight.