A day after a series of primaries failed to significantly change the Republican presidential race, North Carolina appeared poised to play a meaningful role in the contest for the first time since 1976.
Tuesday’s mixed results in Alabama, Mississippi, Hawaii and American Samoa suggested that Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich will still be clawing to reach the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination by the time N.C. Republicans vote on May 8.
“The results made it much more likely that North Carolina will be in play,” said Ferrel Guillory, a political analyst at UNC Chapel Hill.
Meanwhile a new poll released Wednesday showed Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, leading Santorum and Gingrich in North Carolina.
According to Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based Democratic firm, Romney led with 31 percent, followed by Santorum at 27 percent, Gingrich at 24 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 8 percent. The margin of error is 4.4 percentage points.
“North Carolina provides a great example of the spoiler role Newt Gingrich is now playing in the Republican presidential race,” said poll director Tom Jensen.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, won Tuesday’s Alabama and Mississippi primaries, though splitting the conservative vote with former House Speaker Gingrich. On Wednesday, he continued to come under fire from Romney, whose campaign called him “an economic lightweight” and accused him of “desperate attacks.”
Some conservatives have urged Gingrich to quit the race, particularly after losing two Southern states. His only victories have come in South Carolina and his home state of Georgia.
Gingrich camp dismisses poll
Wednesday’s poll gave ammunition to Gingrich’s critics.
Take him out of the picture, it showed, and Santorum leads Romney 42 percent to 38 percent.
But Gingrich has insisted he’s in for the duration. An internal memo released Tuesday by his campaign said he “is well-positioned to win the GOP nomination.”
It said Louisiana’s March 24 primary marked “halftime” in the GOP race. The second half, it said, includes North Carolina and what it described as other Gingrich-friendly states.
“Newt has earned the right to stay in as long as he wants,” said Marc Rotterman, a consultant whose firm is helping Gingrich in North Carolina. “Nobody has worked as hard to build the party as Newt Gingrich.”
Rotterman dismissed Wednesday’s poll.
“A lot can happen in a month and a half,” he said. “That’s a preliminary scrimmage poll. The candidates are just now getting on the field in North Carolina.”
Romney has prominent supporters on the field. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and U.S. Reps. Patrick McHenry and Virginia Foxx among them.
“In North Carolina we have some very conservative people who are supporting Gov. Romney,” said Scott Stone, a former Charlotte mayoral candidate on Romney’s state leadership team.
Rotterman said Gingrich plans to release a list of county campaign chairmen soon.
Less organized is Santorum.
Santorum plans to mobilize
But state GOP officials say they’ve been fielding calls from people interested in Santorum’s campaign. And one aide said the former senator plans to mobilize in North Carolina.
“We’ll be adding team members in the coming days,” said Hogan Gidley, Santorum’s national spokesman. “Obviously North Carolina is one of those states we feel we can do pretty well in.”
Raleigh businessman Chuck Campbell is volunteering for Santorum.
“Romney and Gingrich are getting the support of the elected officials and the establishment,” he said. “But folks at the grass-roots level are for Santorum.”
North Carolina last made a difference in a Republican race in 1976.
That was when Ronald Reagan, with the help of Sen. Jesse Helms, beat then-President Gerald Ford, sending their battle to the GOP convention. Not everybody is convinced that this year’s race will still be wide open by the time it gets to North Carolina.
There are still a dozen contests before May 8. Five, including New York and Pennsylvania, take place April 24. Davidson College political scientist Josh Putnam, an expert on delegate counts, calls that a possible tipping point.
“The math will become impossibly difficult for Santorum and Gingrich by then,” he said. “The argument that ‘We need to keep Romney from (the needed) 1,144 (delegates)’ is going to run out of oxygen by then.”
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