Super Tuesday: 5 things to watch

The most decisive day yet in the Republican candidates' race for the White House.

Yesterday we posted a Q&A guide to the Super Tuesday procedure. As a recap:

Super Tuesday is the first real test of a candidate's popularity nationwide, and thus many states choose to hold their primary or caucus on that day, in order to play a part in the electability test.

Mitt Romney hopes a strong showing will all but seal the deal for him. For Rick Santorum, Super Tuesday is an opportunity to catch or overtake Romney in the delegate count, or at least take a large chunk out of Romney's lead. For Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, sitting in distant third and fourth place, Super Tuesday, with its hundreds of delegates up for grabs, is an opportunity for both candidates to make upward moves.

Caucuses (3 states): Alaska, 27 delegates; Idaho, 32 delegates; North Dakota, 28 delegates

Primaries (7 states): Georgia, 76 delegates; Massachusetts, 41 delegates; Ohio, 66 delegates; Oklahoma, 43 delegates; Tennessee, 58 delegates; Vermont, 17 delegates; Virginia, 49 delegates

437 delegates are in play; 1,144 are needed to win the party's nomination

Click here to see the votes each candidate has already won

And here's our picks of what to look out for today, and tomorrow morning, as the numbers start to trickle in and the delegate counts pile up, one way or another:

1) Who bags Ohio?

With the second largest block of votes available -- and a high possiblity of the winner-takes-all allocation -- Ohio is today's vital state. Of all 50, it is one of the most politically divided and therefore a hot swing-state come the presidential race in November. As Ohio's residents take to the ballot boxes Romney has the momentum, but four polls show him ahead within the margin of error, and at this stage the 66 votes are not certainly his to call.

Also, as an "open" primary, Ohio's Democrats and Independent voters could take to the polls in an attempt to muddy Republican wishes. That said, the reported surge of Democrats voting for Rick Santorum in Michigan last week did not stop frontrunner Romney comfortably taking the state.

2) The Rick Santorum appeal

Come November if he is to have any feasible shot at the White House, Rick Santorum needs to start broadening his appeal among America's vast demographics. Unsurprisingly, today's southern states Oklahoma and Tennessee -- with their Conservative politics and large evangelical populations -- are inching towards Santorum.

Yet Rick's identity as a man who lives and breathes by his faith -- as well as being politically informed by it -- does not actually appear to be working for him. Exit polls from earlier states show Santorum has lost the Catholic vote in every primary; despite his frequent talk about his upbringing within the Church. His recent backtracking on last week's JFK-vomit comment may be some attempt to appease voters who are particularly sensitive about the assassinated president -- the country's first Catholic commander-in-chief.

3) Gingrich strong at home

The former House Speaker's bumpy campaign has tailed off in recent weeks, though Newt is cruising to a victory in his home state of Georgia. A majority share of the largest single chunk of delegates available today will help the Gingrich campaign, but he will have to come at least second in states besides Oklahoma and Tennessee to hang on in the race much longer.

4) The female vote

As Sam Youngman noted, Mitt Romney has drawn on his Michigan game plan for Super Tuesday by appealing to blue-collar workers and women for their votes:

At every event, with an eye on winning women voters, Romney had his popular wife, Ann, whip up the crowds and emphasize Romney's private-sector experience. Ann Romney called her husband a "turnaround guy."

Rick Santorum, on the other hand, has stuck fast to social issues for some time now; campaigning on faith and contraception over the larger, immediate concern for most Americans: the economy. The success of either man with female voters is hard to predict.

5) What the turnout says of the GOP

Over at Politico, Maggie Haberman points out the race's lingering narrative:

. . . one that began in Iowa and has continued through much of the cycle so far -- the reduced number of voters in some of the primaries and caucuses. A number of analysts have suggested it's clear evidence of an enthusiasm gap -- an idea that seems true in some states but not in others.

Early in the day, Virginia appears to be one of such places. Many towns in the east coast state have reported a painfully slow start to the day and very low enthuasism among self-defining Republicans. In Ohio, too, early voting stands at a third of what it was in the 2008 primary.

Patricia Zengerle's report at the Huffington Post gives some idea of the ways in which the GOP candidates' ever-intensifying rhetoric is turning off their own voters:

[Colleen Wilson] had planned to vote for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney because of his business experience and ideas for fixing the U.S. economy, but said inflammatory rhetoric at CPAC made her wonder if she could vote for any of the party's candidates this year.

"It scares me how extreme they are on social conservatism," she said. "It wasn't that they didn't believe in gay marriage. It was how vicious and closed minded they were."

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.