Tight races in two Southern primaries have effectively turned the Republican presidential race into a two-man contest between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, while all but showing Newt Gingrich the exit.
Mr. Gingrich lost Tuesday's votes in Alabama and Mississippi, two states at the heart of the pugnacious former Georgia congressman's Southern strategy. It was perhaps the final humiliation for a candidate with no traction outside the South.
Mr. Santorum won a three-way race in Alabama by a narrow margin and eked out a photo finish win in Mississippi.
Late Tuesday night, Mr. Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, refused to withdraw from the GOP race despite trailing in both states. But he risks becoming largely irrelevant in future primaries if he stays on to fight them.
That is a discomfiting prospect for Mr. Romney. The ex-Massachusetts governor and the Super PAC supporting him spent tens of millions of dollars attempting to crush Mr. Gingrich in early primary states. But instead of clearing Mr. Romney's path to the nomination, it may have only cleared the way for Mr. Santorum's rise.
In recent weeks, Mr. Gingrich has been the only barrier between Mr. Romney and his worst nightmare – a head-to-head duel with Mr. Santorum, with only an increasingly weak Ron Paul to split the anti-Romney vote with the ex-Pennsylvania senator.
Though it is unlikely all of the former Speaker's support would go to Mr. Santorum upon Mr. Gingrich's exit, the ex-senator would attract enough of it to make Mr. Romney's road to the nomination longer and more damaging to his chances of winning a general election against Barack Obama.
Indeed, Mr. Romney has twisted himself into a pretzel trying to show GOP voters that he is as conservative as Mr. Santorum. As the contortions accumulate, they will be harder to unwind in time to lure the moderate, independent voters he needs to win in the fall.
Mr. Romney has tried to be a sport about it, but his exasperation at being given a run for his money by such an unpresidential prospect as Mr. Santorum is finally showing.
"Look, if we go all the way to the convention, we would be signalling our doom in terms of replacing President Obama," Mr. Romney told Fox Business News early Tuesday. "Can you imagine anything that would be a bigger gift to Barack Obama?"
Leading Republicans, including several prominent governors, have publicly expressed concerns that the lengthy nomination race is hurting the party's chances of retaking the White House in November, despite Mr. Obama's vulnerability.
Mr. Obama's overall approval rating hit a dangerously low 41 per cent in the latest CBS News/New York Times monthly survey, down nine percentage points from February.
A total of 90 delegates were at stake in the two Southern states and they are likely to be split nearly equally among Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich. Mr. Romney's 2-to-1 delegate lead over Mr. Santorum remains intact, as does the likelihood that he will ultimately capture the nomination.
Even so, the primaries in Mississippi and Alabama gained an inordinate amount of attention in the run-up to Tuesday's votes largely because of Mr. Romney's expected difficulty among Southern Republicans and evangelical Christians.
Exit polls showed that nearly eight in 10 Republican voters who turned out in the two states on Tuesday described themselves as white evangelicals and four in 10 said they considered themselves "very conservative."
Yet, Mr. Romney, who made awkward references to eating "cheesy grits" and injected plenty of "y'alls" into his Southern campaign speeches, proved he could hold his own in two states considered unfriendly territory for a Mormon politician.
Indeed, the angst among some Republicans about Mr. Romney's ability to win in the South is much ado about nothing. If he is the nominee, Mr. Romney would almost certainly win Mississippi and Alabama, two of the reddest states in the nation.
While Mr. Romney has yet to gain the affection of grassroots Republicans, he is winning enough of their votes. In the first 23 states to hold primaries or caucuses, Mr. Romney captured 3.2 million votes, compared to 1.8 million for Mr. Santorum
Mr. Santorum's "victories" have mostly come in states where turnout has been laughably low, allowing for hard-core conservative and evangelical activists to skew the results.
Fewer than 30,000 voters turned out for Saturday's GOP caucuses in Kansas. Mr. Santorum got barely 15,000 votes but won 33 delegates. In Arizona, where 460,000 Republicans voted in the state's Feb. 28 primary, Mr. Romney got 217,000 votes. Even so, he picked up only 29 delegates.
Mr. Romney has proved he is the choice of not only of a solid plurality of Republicans, but of a broader cross-section of the electorate than Mr. Santorum could ever hope to attract.
Unfortunately for him, there are still enough Republicans who beg to differ.