ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. If you've been listening to the soundbites from the campaign trail lately, you'll have noticed all the talk of grits and deep fried food. Well, today is Southern Tuesday. Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi are voting in their primaries. Hawaii and American Samoa are also holding caucuses. The question is whether these elections might be the long-awaited turning point in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, joins us now. Mara, let's talk about the three leading candidates at this point: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Are these states a must-win for any or all of them?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, I don't think it's a must-win for them to continue, but I would argue that Newt Gingrich has to win one or both of these states to be seen as viable going forward. This is the South. It's his backyard. He's the only Southern candidate. And Rick Santorum also has to do well. These are two of the reddest states. They're filled with the kind of evangelical voters who Santorum is very strong with.
And if he is going to continue making the argument that he's the best conservative alternative to Romney, well, he needs to do well here, too.
BLOCK: And for Mitt Romney, the Mormon former governor of Massachusetts, he said this week he likes cheesy grits, trying to establish some Southern credibility, I guess. What does he need to prove tonight in terms of gaining strength in the South?
LIASSON: Well, that cheesy grits comment kind of sums it up. Alabama and Mississippi are, as Romney has described it, an away game for him, not his comfort zone geographically or culturally. However, the polls in Alabama and Mississippi have shown all three candidates very close and Romney doing better than I think even his campaign first expected. So maybe Republicans in Mississippi and Alabama are eager to get this thing over with and move on to the contest with Obama.
So the point is that Romney is the one with the least at stake tonight. He doesn't need to prove anything by winning. He's still going to get delegates. He already has twice as many delegates as Santorum. So expectations for a change are low for him tonight. If he does win or do very well, I think it would give him a huge boost. It would be a symbolic win. He would have proved that he can win in a conservative state and he has yet to win in the Deep South, which is the epicenter of the GOP base.
BLOCK: And if that does happen, Mara, if Romney does do well in the South, would you expect that one of the other candidates, Newt Gingrich, say, would drop out?
LIASSON: Well, there might be pressure on Gingrich from Santorum, certainly not from Romney. He'd like Santorum and Gingrich to stay in and keep splitting the anti-Romney vote. But I think there will be pressure on both Santorum or Gingrich, whoever does poorly tonight, to drop out. That said, they claim they're going all the way to Tampa. And, of course, as long as they have a superPAC and a suitcase and the chance of winning some more delegates in a proportional primary, there really isn't a lot of pressure.
And Santorum has made it clear that his strategy is to deny Romney the 1,144 delegates he would need to wrap up the nomination, even if Santorum himself doesn't have a chance to reach that number. But looking ahead, there are some primaries coming up that would be very helpful to Romney - Illinois on March 20th, couple days in April - April 3rd, Maryland, Wisconsin and D.C.; April 24th, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island. Of course, there's Pennsylvania that night, too. That's Santorum's home state. So the point is, there might be a turning point in here somewhere for Romney.
BLOCK: OK. NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Thanks so much.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.