That’s the question coming from the media today after Rick Santorum unexpectedly won both Southern primaries last night. Santorum won Alabama by six points over Gingrich, who barely edged past Romney for second place by 1,318 votes, and surprised everyone by winning Mississippi by two points over Gingrich. Romney’s third-place finish in both gave a black eye to Romney, who had appeared to be winning in Mississippi in the last few days, although Romney went on to win the caucuses in Hawaii by 20 points, and in American Samoa as well.
At least twice during this GOP primary season, former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign was left for dead. He impressively battled back — against the odds — each time. For demonstrating toughness — and for always injecting energy and new ideas into the GOP debate — Gingrich has earned our respect.
But there won’t be another comeback. Not this year, at least. Having lost two southern states tonight — ostensibly the geographic bloc that should be his base — the time has come for Gingrich to exit the race. …
Newt Gingrich surprised us all by taking a shoestring campaign all the way into March of 2012. He won South Carolina, and his home state of Georgia. He should be proud of the campaign he has run. But if he wants to remain proud of his efforts, it’s important to go out in a classy manner.
The rest of the media isn’t waiting for a concession speech. The Washington Post has already declared it a two-man race, “symbolically”:
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s twin wins in Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday night are almost certain to give him what he has long wanted: A one-on-one race with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
The victories by Santorum came in the political backyard of Newt Gingrich and are likely to symbolically — if not literally — end the former speaker’s hopes in the race.
CBS believes that last night sent the Matt Lewis message to both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, and predicts a groundswell among conservatives to rally around Santorum:
Before Newt Gingrich emerged Tuesday night in Birmingham to address supporters following his losses in Mississippi and Alabama, his wife Callista introduced him as “the next president of the United States.”
At this point, you have to wonder if even she still believes it.
Gingrich has won just two states in this primary process, and on Tuesday night he lost the two contests that he needed to win to have any chance to rejuvenate his campaign. Rick Santorum has now unambiguously claimed the mantle of consensus conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and the race has now been transformed into a two-man battle for delegates, with Gingrich and Ron Paul on the outside looking in.
That’s not how Gingrich says he sees it, of course. In his remarks Tuesday, he dismissed the “elite media” for the coming calls to drop out and vowed to stay in the race until the nominating convention. However, it’s worth noting that the most important calls for Gingrich to exit will likely come not from the media, but the conservative establishment, which will now rally unambiguously behind Santorum.
National Journal thinks it’s a two-man race as well, but that Santorum is still in trouble:
Alabama and Mississippi threw former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum a lifeline Tuesday, knocking Newt Gingrich on his heels and the Republican presidential nomination at least temporarily out of Mitt Romney’s reach.
The twin Southern victories will help Santorum frame the contest going forward as a two-man race against Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has won more states and delegates than any other candidate.
Gingrich, who tried to position himself as the South’s prodigal son after winning South Carolina and his home state of Georgia, will face mounting pressure to exit the race. The former House speaker spent more time in Alabama and Mississippi than any of his rivals. But Santorum has stolen Gingrich’s base out from under him, having also defeated him last week in Oklahoma and Tennessee.
“No question, Santorum has emerged as the conservative challenger to Romney, while Romney remains a weak front-runner no matter how you play the expectations,” said Greg Mueller, a conservative Republican strategist. “He is having trouble energizing conservatives when choices like Santorum and Gingrich are in the race.”
Will this be a two-man race? I don’t see Gingrich departing before Louisiana on the 24th. After that, there is a ten-day stretch in which Gingrich will have time to reconsider his chances in the race and think about how much cash he has left. Santorum already had a small polling lead in Louisiana, and the results from Mississippi and Alabama are likely to enhance his standing in the state, and Romney will almost certainly spend a lot of money in his last chance to win a Deep South state for another two months. Gingrich might not even place second in Louisiana.
Nevertheless, for all intents and purposes this has become a two-man race, regardless of how many others stick around. Gingrich’s only chance left was to win the South and then argue that Republicans couldn’t win in November with a nominee who couldn’t win in Dixie. Now that Santorum has won three states in the South (he won Tennessee last week) to Gingrich’s two, Santorum prevails even on Ginrich’s best argument. I’d expect to hear that Gingrich will suspend his campaign sometime in the final week of March.