The conventional wisdom as polls opened in Alabama and Mississippi was that Santorum would likely be the big loser by failing to beat Romney or snuff Gingrich. That scenario made sense: Santorum was not only flagging in the polls, but had a decided financial disadvantage in these two states. (His super PAC trailed Team Romney in media buys by a seven-to-one ratio in Alabama and a five-to-one margin in Mississippi; it also had fewer ads than Gingrich ‘s super PAC). But now Gingrich is toast, whether he immediately accepts it or not, and Romney has failed to seal the deal. It seems the long-awaited two-candidate race has finally arrived.

To be sure, Romney has probably won a majority of the night’s delegates (thanks to proportional systems in Alabama and Mississippi, and likely victories in the late-night caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa). But as on Super Tuesday, Mitt’s big problem was his failure to meet rising expectations. He managed to finish third in both Mississippi and Alabama, despite his advantages in money and endorsements—and his apparent momentum (leading several late polls in both states, and appearing to win Mississippi even tonight in early exit polls).

Romney’s night isn’t quite so discouraging if you look at demographics. Romney did relatively well among evangelical voters (who made up 80 percent of Mississippi voters and 74 percent of Alabama’s), and very well in terms of voters’ estimates of his superior electability (50 percent in Alabama and 49 percent in Mississippi said he was most likely to beat Obama). As in virtually every state so far, Mitt won in urban-suburban strongholds, carrying Jackson, Gulfport, and Biloxi in Mississippi and Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile in Alabama.

But Santorum outpaced both his rivals in rural parts of these states, carrying the pineywoods regions of North Alabama and Mississippi, while Gingrich did relatively well, as expected, in rural black belt counties—just not well enough. And Santorum very narrowly led Newt among “very conservative” and evangelical voters in both states, which helped put him over the top. In a distant fourth place, Ron Paul performed in the single digits in both states.

All in all, the results were within a few percentage points of virtually every projection. But the variations—giving Santorum two wins where he wasn’t supposed to excel, Gingrich two losses in his “base,” and Romney a pair of third-place finishes—provided a big feast for spinmeisters, particularly those hungering and thirsting for an extended contest.

The path ahead includes caucuses in Missouri next Saturday, where Santorum built high expectations with his virtually unopposed win in a non-binding “beauty contest” primary on Feb. 7, and in Puerto Rico on Sunday, where Romney should clean up. But the big high-publicity contest will be next Tuesday in the Illinois primary, where the argument that Romney is weak in Midwestern “Rust Belt” states will be put to one more test. If he survives until then, Louisiana on March 24 could provide Santorum with another belt of Southern comfort.

But the parallel battle, which has been raging since Romney’s victories in Florida and Nevada back in January (if not earlier), will be among Republican elites. By this point, GOP opinion leaders are either frantic to bring the contest to a close to let the “inevitable” and “electable” Romney marshal resources for November—or want to give Santorum one last chance to prove that the palpable anti-Romney sentiment of conservative activists can lift him to an unlikely nomination or convention bid.

Romney has now lost four opportunities (after wins in New Hampshire, Florida/Nevada, Michigan, and Ohio) to nail down the nomination, a record that should at some point begin to make his elite backers really take stock of his attractiveness as a candidate. And, having won the long-standing contest to become the “conservative alternative to Romney,” Santorum has his own decision to make: whether to double down on his culture-war-heavy, ideological true-believer message or begin trying to convince elites he can actually beat Obama. 

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic, a blogger for The Washington Monthly, and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.