Rick Santorum was the big winner in Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and Mitt “the inevitable” Romney was the loser. But the man of the hour is Newt Gingrich, who was not only defeated and humiliated but suddenly seemed completely redundant in the Republican race for the presidency.

Gingrich’s losses in these two ultra-conservative Deep South states demolished the “Southern Strategy” on which he had based his continued candidacy and his pledge to “go all the way to Tampa”, where the Republican Convention will be held. Gingrich, a Georgian with established conservative credentials, was overtaken by a younger Northerner, despite his home field advantage and in contests which he himself had described until recently as “do or die”.

For many leaders of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and as of this morning they will be pressing Gingrich to behave like a proper southern gentleman and to clear the way for a true one-on-one duel between their darling Santorum and Romney, to whom, obviously, they refuse to warm. The conservatives are looking at Tuesday’s results and drooling when they do the math: without Gingrich in the race, Santorum would have wiped the floor with Romney, whose status would immediately change from inevitable to anything but.

U.S. commentators were already speculating last night about the reaction of Gingrich’s main funder, Sheldon Adelson, to what they described as his failed bet on the former Speaker. On the one hand, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, Adelson wants to keep Gingrich in the race so that he can syphon off votes from Santorum and ensure Romney’s selection as the Republican candidate. But Adelson’s prestige might suffer, these analysts believe, if he is seen to be backing an absolute “straw candidate” whose sole purpose is to stack the deck against Santorum.

In his speech after the results came in last night, Gingrich lamely tried to stick to his claim that only he can beat President Obama in the debates before November’s elections and his insistence that he knows how to miraculously bring down the price of gas to $2.50 a gallon. But his voice was weak, his eyes were weary and his heart obviously wasn’t in it. The danger facing Gingrich now is that he won’t pull out of the race in time but conservative votes will make the decision in his stead and abandon him in the upcoming contests in Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana.

In such a scenario Gingrich, whose considerable talent is dwarfed only by his enormous self-regard, may find himself facing a punishment that would be cruel and unusual even for a politician with a standard-issue ego: his detractors will gleefully ridicule him while his supporters will turn away, with pity in their eyes.

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