Mississippi, with its 40 delegates at stake Tuesday, joined the list of must-win states for Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich, with wins in South Carolina and Georgia under his belt, opted again to cancel campaign appearances in one part of the country -- in this case, Kansas -- to concentrate on another, the Deep South states of Mississippi and Alabama. He skipped campaigning in Michigan and several other states to focus on Super Tuesday contests in southern states.
Kansas' caucus was Saturday. Of the three southern states holding contests Tuesday, Gingrich won Georgia, a "must-win" state the former House speaker represented for decades. His hopes for picking up Tennessee were dashed when Santorum claimed victory there. Mitt Romney notched a win in Virginia, where only he and Ron Paul qualified for the ballot.
Gingrich's Mississippi campaign organizer Scott Brewster said the state is a key piece of Gingrich campaign strategy to focus heavily on southern states, The (Pascagoula) Mississippi Press reported.
"We obviously knew we were going to struggle in New Hampshire and Ohio and other industrial states, but we always had the feeling we could carry the entire South," Brewster said.
Even before Super Tuesday, Gingrich worked to prove he was a viable candidate despite the polls, the lack of funds and his sometimes-lampooned ideas.
"I think … big ideas matter," Gingrich said on ABC before Super Tuesday, adding he thought his proposals for lowering the per-gallon price of gas to $2.50 and colonize on the moon resonate.
While Romney has outspent the competition many times over and is the front-runner "without question ...," Gingrich said, "he's not a very convincing front-runner, and he's a long way from having closed out this race."
The southern flavor of the primary season for the next couple of weeks also provides Romney another opportunity to show he can connect with evangelical Christians and conservative Republicans who have been reluctant to take him in, so far, preferring Santorum's focus on social issues instead.
"I see Mississippi and Alabama as uphill battles for Romney," Romney supporter Henry Barbour, a Mississippi GOP official and nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, told The Wall Street Journal. "But we have an opportunity, by voting for Governor Romney, to really help bring out the fat lady and end the nominating process."
In fact, conservative commentator S.E. Cupp told NewsMax she didn't think Romney would be the top dog in any of the southern hunts for delegates.
"He'll be lucky to come in second in any of these states and he probably won't win any of them," she said in the exclusive interview with NewsMax. "So it's going to be hard for the next few weeks for Mitt Romney to maintain any momentum he has coming out of Super Tuesday and brace himself for April when he can get into friendlier territory.
One big -- and bad -- takeaway for Romney is his inability to draw conservatives and evangelicals to his bandwagon, Cupp said.
"The whole game for the past six months has been to figure out why Mitt Romney isn't solidifying among conservatives and it's deeper than just he's too plastic, he's too robotic," she told NewsMax. "When it comes down to it, for all of the politicking we do around elections, voting is still a very personal, private, sacred experience and voters want to leave the voting booth feeling good about themselves, feeling like they didn't just vote for a man but a cause -- and they [conservatives] can't identify the cause that Mitt Romney represents.
A Gallup poll taken in 2011 indicated Mississippi was pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with each party having 43 percent support of those who said they identified with a party or leaned toward a party.
Election officials, too, are preparing for the primaries and expressed hope voter turnout would be better than expected, The Mississippi Press said.
"I'm an eternal optimist and we hope that everybody will get out and vote, even though based on what we've heard so far not a lot of people are interested right now," Jackson County Circuit Clerk Joe Martin said.
Mississippi's 40 delegates are awarded three per congressional district with the winner of the beauty contest also getting 25 at-large delegates.