Romney challenger role is still up for grabs

March 8, 2012 12:01 am

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After the continent-spanning competition of Super Tuesday, the Republican presidential race returns to a series of weeks and contests with more focused playing fields.

Results in the next month aren't likely to alter the big picture of the race, one in which Mitt Romney has a big delegate lead but still faces a draining series of showdowns with rivals who won't go away.

But the coming contests could reshape a key subplot -- whether former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will stake a lasting claim to the role of the front-runner's chief challenger. Tuesday's results reinforced Mr. Santorum's casting in that role. He won three states and for the second week in a row gave Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, a scare in a big Midwestern battleground.

Mr. Gingrich appeared to be the chief challenger after his win in South Carolina, but since Mr. Gingrich's big loss to Mr. Romney in Florida and Mr. Santorum's three-state surprise in early February, it's the former senator who has appeared to be a bigger threat to the front-runner.

Two deep South contests next Tuesday, following his home state win in Georgia, give Mr. Gingrich perhaps his last chance to demonstrate that he is still a force in the race. Mr. Gingrich tacitly acknowledged the pressure to do so Tuesday night when, in a rambling speech to supporters he recited the names of now departed GOP contenders -- Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain -- who had at various points been seen as preferable conservative standard-bearers in the race.

Mr. Santorum's claim to that title, he suggested, could prove to be equally transitory.

If Mr. Gingrich were to prevail in the two southern primaries, it would revitalize his campaign. But Mr. Romney might be an indirect beneficiary as his more conservative opposition would continue to be divided between two credible candidates.

First Published 2012-03-07 23:29:53

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