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After the South: 4 ways Mitt Romney can bounce back
Romney stumbled badly in Mississippi and Alabama, leading to frayed nerves in the GOP establishment and unsolicited advice from political pundits
 
Mitt Romney came in third place in Tuesday's Mississippi and Alabama primaries, finishing behind Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in both races.
Mitt Romney came in third place in Tuesday's Mississippi and Alabama primaries, finishing behind Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in both races.
Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

The political world had two rather contradictory reactions to Rick Santorum's unexpected sweep of the Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday: This changes nothing, and this changes everything. The nothing-to-see-here crowd points to Mitt Romney's big lead in the GOP race's total popular vote, and his growing, seemingly insurmountable lead in delegates. The other camp says Romney's humiliating third-place showings Tuesday and apparent inability to win Southern states, conservatives, or evangelical Christians are nothing short of "devastating" and "disastrous." How can Romney reclaim his mojo, and status as the inevitable nominee? Here, four ideas:

1. Find a compelling message
These days, Romney's message is "consumed with delegate math, arguments about electability, and attacks" on Santorum, says Peter Hamby at CNN. Many Republicans clearly aren't wild about that approach, and Romney's supporters are practically begging him to "recalibrate his strategy and make a stronger case to voters about why he deserves to be president." The loudest, and most important, voices "calling for a message adjustment" are Romney's donors, says Maggie Haberman at Politico. They want to hear less about delegates, "a bit more policy, and more on his economic planks."

2. Win Illinois
Forget delegates: "To be the frontrunner, you have to look like the frontrunner," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. "And that means putting 'W's up on the board." The next big prize is Illinois on March 20 — "a state that Santorum and Romney both have to have," and either could win. If Romney prevails, Santorum's "likely to be pigeon-holed as a candidate of the far Right." But "if Romney were to lose Illinois," says John Cassidy at The New Yorker, "all hell would break lose." All of a sudden, "all manner of crazy scenarios would merit consideration," including a "white knight" candidate jumping in the race.

3. Bury Santorum under a pile of cash
Because Illinois is a "firewall state for Romney," and his best chance to kill Santorum's momentum, the next week "will be among the most brutal — and expensive — of the campaign," says The Washington Post's Cillizza. That plays to one of Romney's great advantages: Money. "Romney and his super PAC have outspent Santorum in every state that has voted so far," and you can bet they'll do it again in Illinois.

4. Shake up his campaign staff
"Were I Mitt Romney, I'd be firing staff," says Erick Erickson at RedState. Romney stupidly predicted a win in Mississippi, proving that his campaign "still has no clue how to play the expectations game." Indeed, "Romney the private equity executive probably wouldn't look at his firm after a series of faulty transactions and conclude that nothing needed to be changed," says Politico's Haberman. Romney the candidate can't, either.

 

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