Today brings the GOP Presidential primary / caucus contests in the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Hawaii in addition to the US territory of American Samoa.
The two southern states represent an interesting bell weather for the three main GOP Presidential candidates.
Newt Gingrich, who won on Super Tuesday in his home state of Georgia but otherwise did poorly, needs a very strong performance (ie WIN) in each of these contests in order to have a viable candidacy for the nomination.
Rick Santorum, hopes to have momentum from his win in Kansas, to do well with the traditional / religious conservatives that he counts on. He trails significantly in the delegate count and needs a large gain in delegates to keep his mathematical hopes alive.
Mitt Romney is calling these races an 'away game' - his way of saying that his expectations are to be competitive in the popular vote and delegate counts - but is not expecting a win in the south after being blasted for months as a 'Massachusett's moderate'.
Polls still have not closed in these contests, but exit poll information highlighted on The Drudge Report is showing that Alabama is a close fought battle between these three candidates while Romney appears to be on the path for a win in Mississippi.
This post will be updated as the results come in.
UPDATED 8:20 PM PDT
Rick Santorum is the winner in both Alabama and Mississippi - all major media outlets call both of the major Southern primaries for Santorum.
2nd / 3rd place in both Alabama and Mississippi are still close to call between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Ron Paul finishes a very distant 4th place.
Alabama was the first state called - and at this hour, with 88% of the precincts reporting, Rick Santorum has 35% of the vote, Newt Gingrich as a 1,400 vote lead for 2nd place (29%) over Mitt Romney (29%), and Ron Paul has just 5% support.
Mississippi was a closer race called just before the 8:00PM PDT hour. With 97% of the precincts reporting, Rick Santorum has 33% of the vote (88,127 votes), Newt Gingrich 31% (83,391) is in 2nd, Mitt Romney is currently in 3rd place, 30% (80,864 votes), and Ron Paul in a distant 4th with 4% of the vote.
Romney is expected to do well in the contests in American Samoa (9 delegates) and Hawaii. Last week he won all of the delegates from the caucuses in Guam and the territory of the Northern Marianas. I suspect that he will also do well in Hawaii.
Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have very challenging paths to the GOP nomination based on the way the delegates have fallen so far. While both have a mathematical chance to get the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, the odds of doing so become more and more distant each week.
Rick Santorum continues to insist that if Newt Gingrich drops out of the race he has the ability to defeat Mitt Romney for the nomination - but with all due respect to the candidate, he's getting far too whiny about this - and his whinging about both the Romney campaign and the candidate is starting to turn people off considering Santorum as a valid candidate.
Newt Gingrich is no better either. He seems locked on putting his own personal ego before the best interests of the GOP with his insistence to stay in the race to the convention - and fighting at the convention.
The process thus far has not really damaged the GOP - despite the pontification of the progressive mainstream media pundits - but both of these candidates could damage the party to the point that they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory if they continue down the path they are taking.
Tonight was a good night for Rick Santorum. He needed to do very well with the conservatives in the South - and did. He also gains some momentum for his case that the conservative vote needs to be consolidated in order to stand against Romney. However, that point also depends a lot on the mindset of Newt Gingrich. Santorum has whittled away some of Romney's momentum from Super Tuesday with Kansas and now Alabama / Mississippi - but with the proportional allotment of delegates, he will not make huge inroads on Romney's delegate lead.
Newt Gingrich, on the other hand did not have that good of a night even with 2 2nd place finishes. The former speaker needed to win both of these contests - and was not able to do so despite being a 'favorite son'. However, as evidenced by an interview he is giving now on FNC, his ego is such that he will not step back. He doesn't see a real path to the nomination at this point via the electoral / delegate process for himself - but seems intent to try to force the issue at the convention if possible - and doing all he can to ensure that Romney is a damaged candidate if he is the nominee. Hubris and ego seem to be the main driver for the former Speaker - and that reflects very poorly on Gingrich.
I don't think either Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich are electable on a national / general election basis - and nothing from either of them tonight has changed that viewpoint. Many seem to think the same way as well - in Mississippi's exit polls, regardless of whom they voted for 49% of those who did vote believe Romney is the most electable of the GOP candidates.
Mitt Romney could have gotten a real additional momentum jump with even just one 'road win'. He did not get a win in either state, but made the race extremely competitive and close. Exit poll results show that Romney did very well with those who felt that 'electability' was the biggest issue they were facing. That's Romney's big advantage - and this point will be crucial as the primary season continues.
The other big advantage that will pay dividends for Romney is that the majority of his focus and comments on the campaign trail are directed towards Barack Obama and his policies / agenda. His competitors are focusing on running him down with only secondary considerations towards the real target - Barack Obama.
The biggest loser in tonight's southern primaries has to be Ron Paul. He finishes well back in single digits in both contests - far less than he even usually polls at for his 7-9% fringe support. However, like Gingrich, Paul is marching to the beat of a different drum and is not likely to suspend his campaign until he starts to get many more weeks like this one - and even then Paul might just continue on to the convention to see what's in it for Ron Paul.
The race will continue - with these same faces - for the next several weeks. .