LLOYD GRAY: Dead heat, tepid tea in GOP race

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Rick Santorum was the undisputed winner in Mississippi’s presidential primary. You get more votes than the next guy, you win.
But the vote was remarkably close – a virtually even three-way split among Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney – separated by only about 6,000 votes out of 290,000 cast. And when it comes to what really counts, Santorum got 13 delegates while the other two got 12 each, which is probably fine with the Romney camp.
Romney got caught in the expectations game. No one initially gave him much of a chance to win Mississippi, but then a late poll or two showed he might do it.
Given that north Mississippi provided Santorum’s margin of victory and that Romney did less well here than elsewhere, it was probably a mistake for Romney not to have shown his face up here. He was banking on a heavy suburban Republican vote in the Jackson area, as well as on the Gulf Coast, both less socially conservative areas than ours, but turnout wasn’t high enough and his lead wasn’t big enough in those places to prevail statewide.
The vote was a mild embarrassment for the Mississippi Republican establishment, which from Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves on down – not to mention Sen. Thad Cochran – was squarely in the Romney camp. But no one should doubt that Mississippi will be safely in the Republican presidential column in November, whoever the nominee is.

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Meanwhile, Tea Party-inspired challenges of Mississippi Republican incumbents fizzled. Henry Ross’ two-year-old message that Alan Nunnelee isn’t a “real conservative” still hasn’t resonated. He got just 29 percent to Nunnelee’s 57 percent, with Robert Estes – endorsed by the DeSoto County Tea Party – at 14.
In other U.S. House races and in the Senate primary won by Roger Wicker, Tea Partiers did worse. Last week’s column posed a question about these unusual challenges to incumbents: Family feud or just noise? Turned out to be the latter.
Nunnelee, whose reputation as a party team player has been well earned in Jackson and Washington, nevertheless bolted from the pack with his endorsement of Santorum. That set him apart – and on the prevailing side – from his former state colleagues. Given that the 1st District put Santorum over the top, not a bad move from a political standpoint.

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Nunnelee and Wicker as well as the Republican presidential nominee will have Democrats and a few off-brand candidates on the ballot with them in November. This is a hard time for Democrats in Mississippi, and Brad Morris – ex-incumbent Travis Childers’ former chief of staff – would have to pull a huge upset to knock off Nunnelee. Albert N. Gore Jr. of Starkville – yes, a distant relative – will be an even longer shot to beat Wicker.
But don’t doubt Morris’ determination to make Nunnelee work for it.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 786-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com