Mitt Romney was right. Alabama and Mississippi proved to be an "away game" for the former Massachusetts governor.
Rick Santorum's victories in the two Southern primaries on Tuesday night demonstrated once again Romney's inability to bring very conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians into his fold. A low turnout suggested a continued lack of enthusiasm among Republicans, which is beginning to take its toll on the frontrunner.
"We did it again," a beaming Santorum declared to a ballroom full of supporters in Lafayette, La., home to the next Southern primary on March 24. "This campaign is about ordinary folks doing extraordinary things--sort of like America."
The Romney campaign continues to argue that delegate math is on its side. Santorum barely made a dent in Romney's formidable lead in the chase for the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination. The political momentum, and the likely infusion of campaign cash that comes along with it, however, will bolster Santorum's ability to stay in a contest that has not yet reached the halfway point in total available delegates.
But the biggest lesson from Santorum's Southern sweep Tuesday has yet to crystallize. Will disappointing results and less-than-stellar management of expectations create fault lines in Romney's campaign?
Mitt Romney and his team have remained relentlessly disciplined, both in public and private, about not allowing the week-to-week primary results to rattle them. They have portrayed a steady, even-tempered demeanor as they methodically look to accumulate delegates for the remainder of the nomination season and focus on the general election matchup against President Obama.
Watch Romney closely in the days ahead to see if any cracks emerge in that calibrated response to events. It can come in several forms, such as opening his own checkbook in order to pour cash into a campaign that is running out of high dollar donors. He could also choose to shake up his staff or make a clear pivot in strategy.
The upcoming April contests in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island should prove to be very fertile ground for Romney. But the intervening three weeks will feel like an eternity for Romney, and he will have to withstand pressure from the media, donors, friends, family, and advisers to make some dramatic statement that he's shaking up his campaign.
There is no easy fix for Romney to inject enthusiasm into his campaign or to start converting the resistant portions of his party's base into loyal supporters. Unfortunately for him, the clamor for a feat of campaign acrobatics is going to grow increasingly louder through the end of March.
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