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A Gingrich drop-out scenario emerges

Newt Gingrich needs to win Mississippi and Alabama next week to stay in the race.

Newt Gingrich canceled all scheduled appearances in Kansas (which has caucuses on Saturday) to concentrate on Alabama and Mississippi.

As those following the Repub nominating race know, the presence of both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the race has become Mitt Romney’s best friend. Gingrich and Santorum both fish for votes mostly in very conservative, Tea Party and evangelical waters.

It’s dangerous to make such assumptions, but if those elements of the Repub primary electorate united behind a single candidate, it could be much harder for Romney to keep winning primaries.

Most of the commentariat calls Santorum the chief challenger and a drumbeat has begun for Gingrich to drop out. Gingrich has generally been very cautious about making any statements about scenarios under which he would drop out before the convention. That may have changed yesterday.

Gingrich canceled all scheduled appearances in Kansas (which has caucuses on Saturday) to concentrate on Alabama and Mississippi, which have primaries on Tuesday. That makes strategic sense. Gingrich, a Georgian, is deemed to have a chance of winning those states. But his chief spokesman R.C. Hammond told the Wall Street Journal — twice — that Gingrich has to win both of those primaries to remain a credible candidate. Here’s the exchange:

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Q: Newt said he had to win Georgia to remain a credible candidate. Does he have to win Alabama and Mississippi to remain a credible candidate?

A: Yes.

Q: He has to win?

A: Yes.

Hammond declined to go the next step and state explicitly that Gingrich would drop out if he loses either state, but it’s a little hard to stay in the race if you’ve conceded that you are not a credible candidate to win the nomination.

As Andrew Sullivan put it:

“There doesn’t seem much wriggle room in the Hammond quote. So if Santorum wins those states, as he well might, we’re into a three-man race. And it could be an even worse month for Romney than he imagined.”

Let’s not get carried away. It doesn’t take much wriggle room. But if it’s true (as it seemed a month ago) that a big part of Gingrich’s motivation for staying in the race was to punish Team Romney for the carpet bomb it dropped on Newt’s reputation in the week leading up to the Iowa caucuses, and if he agrees with his friends in the “elite media” that his presence in the race has turned into a key Romney asset, it also makes sense.