Today is a relatively big day in the GOP nomination battle -- with caucuses in American Samoa and Hawaii and primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. The main story is in the South, though. And although this Southern Super Tuesday has relatively few delegates at stake – just 84 are up for grabs between the Alabama and Mississippi primaries – it will likely attract a good deal of attention. It will also offer something we have not yet seen: a roughly equal three-way battle between Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum.

The polls suggest that Romney is currently pulling in about what he managed to get in neighboring Georgia and South Carolina. In Alabama his average in the RealClearPolitics compilation of recent polls is 27 percent and in Mississippi it is around 30 percent; compare that to the 26 percent he won in Georgia and the 28 percent he won in South Carolina.

In those prior two Deep South contests, winning less than a third of the vote was far from enough for a victory, yet Romney could win both states today. Why? The reason is the Santorum surge. Santorum won just 20 percent in Georgia and 17 percent in South Carolina, leaving Gingrich to collect more than 40 percent of the vote in both states. But not this time. Santorum’s secure position as the national second-place contestant seems to have given him a boost in Alabama and Mississippi, so he’s now pulling in five to fifteen percent more of the vote and has an outside shot at victory.

Unfortunately for Gingrich, the Santorum surge is coming out of his bottom line. The primary electorates in both states will surely mimic Georgia and South Carolina – with a plurality of voters calling themselves “very conservative.” In the prior two Deep South contests, these very conservative voters broke overwhelmingly for Gingrich, but if the polls are any indication, it looks like they are split between Gingrich and Santorum. That leaves Romney in position to win, despite his modest appeal with these types of voters.

These kinds of “cracks” in ideological groups are fairly common in primary battles on the Republican side. In 2008, John McCain won South Carolina with just 33 percent of the vote because conservative support was split between Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson. A similar split in conservative ranks between Huckabee and Romney propelled McCain to victory in Florida, despite the fact that Rudy Giuliani pulled 31 percent, largely from the Arizona senator’s natural constituency. In 1996 Pat Buchanan was able to win New Hampshire with just 27 percent of the vote because Lamar Alexander and Bob Dole split the moderate vote between themselves.

What is so strange about this cycle is that we have not yet seen this kind of phenomenon. We came close in Iowa – but that was because of Ron Paul’s quirky libertarian appeal rather than an equal showing between two strong conservatives. It really is a wonder that, since then, we have had two solidly conservative alternatives to Romney, but none has risen at the same time. Either Gingrich is up and Santorum is down (Florida and South Carolina), or Santorum is up and Gingrich is down (Michigan and Ohio). The fact that both of them are in competition today actually is good news for Romney, who could win one or both states with less than a third of the vote.

Romney’s best bet for a victory today is probably in Alabama. Nearly two thirds of the vote there should be cast in urban or suburban areas, which have typically favored Romney in this cycle. There are three metro regions in the state with over 400,000 people – Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile. By comparison, the largest metro area in Mississippi is Jackson, with a population of less than 200,000. These kind of rural voters in Mississippi voters have been the bread-and-butter of Gingrich in the South and Santorum in the North.

Regardless of who wins, the rules of delegate allocation virtually guarantee that nobody will be walking away with a major haul from either state. Thus, this battle, while interesting by itself, is likely to reinforce the dominant theme that has emerged in the 2012 primary: Mitt Romney is not the runaway consensus choice of his party, but he's ahead in the delegate count and has a major structural advantage.

Today’s result should also buttress the widespread belief that Gingrich’s campaign has become quixotic. Pulling less than 40 percent in the Deep South – which is Gingrich’s home region and full of voters who are most inclined to his candidacy – would be yet another signal that his campaign has run out of steam. Whether or not he drops out is a different matter altogether, but a weak showing in Alabama and Mississippi (even if he manages narrow victories in both states) will reinforce the idea that he has no viable path to the nomination.

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