Three of the four remaining contestants in the race swept through the state last week in a final bid to earn support. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the current front runner, hit several cities and has won endorsements from the state’s top GOP leaders. Among them: Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and state Auditor Stacey Pickering.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, both vying for the anti-Romney vote, also toured the state and included Tupelo on their list of stops. Santorum visited Hawkeye Industries in Tupelo on Wednesday and swings back through today for lunch at Sweet Peppers Deli. Gingrich held a rally at the Tupelo Furniture Market on Thursday.
Both men have publicly acknowledged the importance of a Mississippi win and its potential to change the dynamics of the presidential race.
“It’s critical,” Gingrich said after his Tupelo rally.
Santorum delivered the same message to supporters at Hawkeye Industries, telling them they have a chance to make a difference on a national level.
As of Saturday afternoon, Romney had earned 440 delegates since the start of the race compared to 213 for Santorum and 107 for Gingrich. Ron Paul, a distant fourth, has 46.
A candidate needs 1,144 to cinch the GOP nomination.
Forty delegates are up for grabs in Mississippi, a state in which Democrats and Republicans can participate in either primary. Several polls released last week suggest voters here could evenly split their support among the top three contenders.
Rasmussen shows Romney leading 35 percent in the Magnolia State to Gingrich’s and Santorum’s 27 percent each. America Research Group projects Gingrich grabbing 35 percent, with Romney taking 31 and Santorum 20.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul and four candidates who earlier dropped out on the race will also appear on the Mississippi ballot.
A strong showing for either Gingrich or Santorum in Mississippi and neighboring Alabama, which also votes Tuesday, could decisively oust one from the contest while crowning the other as Romney’s more conservative alternative. National media outlets and bloggers are anxiously awaiting the results, with Mississippi a major topic of discussion in the days leading up to the election.
A former Georgia congressman who now lives in Virginia, Gingrich is trying to appeal to voters as a true Southern conservative who understands their concerns and will fight for their priorities in Washington. It’s a connection not lost on some Northeast Mississippi residents. His strong debate skills help, too.
“I think Newt is the only one who can beat Obama,” said Tupelo resident Joe Gordon. “I don’t think Santorum or Romney can stand up to him.”
Santorum has a different strategy, and one that’s equally appealing to voters in the Bible Belt. A devout Catholic, he woos evangelical Christians who value faith above politics and takes bold stands on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
“I like Santorum because of his conservative values,” said Mike Maynard, chairman of the Republican Executive Committee of Lee County. “He’s a Christian and I’m a Baptist, and we basically believe in the same things. That’s important here. This is a city where the first thing people ask you is where you go to church.”
Maynard declined to say which candidate he’ll vote for Tuesday, however.