Once again, Americans are waking up to headlines about multiple primary-night victories for Rick Santorum over the man who is still widely considered to be the most likely Republican nominee this year, Mitt Romney.
But Mr. Santorum’s victories on Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi raise a pivotal question: Can he build on his night of triumph to emerge as a true alternative to Mr. Romney and a credible standard-bearer for his party, or will he remain just an obstacle for Mr. Romney to maneuver past on his inevitable path to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination?
The answer will in no small part depend on what Newt Gingrich does from here. Late Tuesday night, at least, Mr. Gingrich indicated he would not drop out, vowing to continue on “toward Tampa,” where the party will hold its convention in August. In that case, Mr. Santorum will continue to share the anti-Romney vote and see his chances dim that much more.
If Mr. Gingrich changes his mind in the light of day — or is marginalized in the remaining primaries by conservative voters who judge that their cause is better served by rallying around a single rival to Mr. Romney — Mr. Santorum will get the “two-man race” he says he can win.
Even then, his chances of stopping Mr. Romney could come down to difficult delegate math.
Mr. Romney’s campaign has maintained that Mr. Santorum will not be able to accumulate enough delegates to overtake Mr. Romney on the way to the 1,144 needed for the nomination. But Mr. Santorum’s aides say they can win enough to do something else: Block Mr. Romney from reaching 1,144, setting up an extraordinary moment of modern politics, in which a major party’s nomination battle would be decided at its national convention.
Mr. Romney and party leaders have increasingly sought to paint Mr. Santorum as waging a hopeless war that does nothing more than drag down the inevitable nominee. Mr. Romney himself went so far as to say in an interview on CNN on Tuesday that Mr. Santorum was at the “desperate end of his campaign.”
And Mr. Romney’s campaign, which prides itself on having prepared all along for a difficult delegate-by-delegate fight, has said that it does not ultimately worry that Mr. Santorum will steal the nomination away.
Mr. Santorum was only too happy on Tuesday night to engage on the subject while addressing ebullient supporters in Louisiana — which holds its primary a week from Saturday — reminding them that Mr. Romney and the outside “super PAC” supporting him substantially outspent Mr. Santorum and his supportive outside group.
“Everybody’s talking about all the math and all the things — that this race is inevitable,” Mr. Santorum said. “Well, for someone who thinks this race is inevitable he’s spending a whole lot of money against me.”
Mr. Santorum began his remarks by saying with a broad smile, “We did it again,” a reference to all the other nights when he appeared on live television to declare victory over Mr. Romney.
He promised to “compete everywhere,” and said “the time is now for conservatives to pull together” behind his candidacy, a call to arms to grass-roots Tea Party voters and other very conservative voters to use the night to advance their fight to stop Mr. Romneyfrom getting the nomination. Many seem ready to hear that call.
“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,’ ” said Keith Appell, a conservative strategist.
Suggesting it was time for Mr. Gingrich to step aside, Mr. Appell added, “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.”
Mr. Gingrich urged his supporters on Tuesday night to ignore such chatter, blaming the “elite media” and noting that he had been counted out plenty of times before.
But regardless of what Mr. Gingrich does, if Mr. Santorum is to emerge as a credible, potential nominee in both the delegate fight and the political argument with Mr. Romney, he will have to run an almost perfect campaign and compete strongly in big states like Illinois — where Mr. Romney is considered a favorite — or Pennsylvania, where he served as a congressman and a senator before losing badly in 2006.
The states where Mr. Santorum has won, including Mississippi and Alabama, are more conservative, with larger proportions of Republicans who call themselves “evangelical” or “very conservative” than those states where Mr. Romney has won, including Michigan and Ohio, according to exit polls.
Mr. Santorum, who is often identified by his social conservative message, has had his challenges in winning over independent and moderate voters who will be so important not only in the states to come in the Republican nominating race, but also in any general election against President Obama.
More broadly, public opinion surveys — including in the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll released this week and Tuesday’s exit polls in Mississippi and Alabama — show that while Mr. Santorum is generally favored by those who care most about conservative principles, Mr. Romney is generally favored by those who care most about defeating Mr. Obama.
In interviews, even some of Mr. Santorum’s most ardent supporters have worried that his emphasis on religious themes will turn off independent swing voters.One man who is expert in running a presidential race considered too away-from-center to win — George S. McGovern, who won only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., as the Democratic presidential nominee in his 1972 race against President Richard M. Nixon — said in an interview on Tuesday that he saw parallels with Mr. Santorum should Mr. Santorum win the nomination, far-fetched as he thought that was.
“It’s hard for me to believe that the country is that far to the right,” said Mr. McGovern, who was viewed as too far to the left in his campaign. “American voters have been somewhere near the middle.”
For now, Mr. Santorum’s supporters say they just want their shot. “It’s time for Newt to put his support behind Rick,” said Derek Dake, who came to Mr. Santorum’s rally on Tuesday.