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Rick Santorum scores big in two Southern primaries

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Scoring major upsets in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday, Rick Santorum dealt a potentially crippling blow to Newt Gingrich and effectively emerged as Mitt Romney’s lead challenger for the Republican presidential nomination.

With most of the votes tallied, Gingrich was finishing a close second to Santorum in both states, followed by Romney.

Santorum’s victories in the heart of the GOP’s Deep South stronghold give him a burst of momentum heading into the next round of contests in Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana. He now has won 10 contests in states spanning the nation.

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“We did it again,” the former Pennsylvania senator told cheering supporters at a celebration in Lafayette, La.

For Gingrich, who devoted a full week to zigzagging across Alabama and Mississippi by bus, the twin losses appeared to crush his effort to resuscitate his candidacy in the South, notwithstanding his vow Tuesday night to press forward.

Only Romney had little to lose in Alabama and Mississippi. With a substantial nationwide lead in the chase for nominating delegates, the former Massachusetts governor was destined to remain well ahead in the race for the 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination.

Romney, whose talk of eating grits and catfish proved to be awkward overtures to locals, called Tuesday’s contests an “away game,” forgoing an election night party in the South to travel to New York City for fundraisers this week.

As elsewhere, Romney and his allies outspent rivals on radio and television ads by huge margins. But most Republicans in the region are evangelical Christians, a group that has shunned Romney in nearly every state that has voted, according to exit surveys.

Romney supporters hoped a surprise victory, or two, was in the offing — an opportunity to speed up his sealing of the nomination.

But preliminary results of the surveys Tuesday found that 4 out of 5 voters in Mississippi, and a slightly smaller share in Alabama, were white evangelicals, and once again he was not their favorite.

That group is Santorum’s bulwark of support nationwide. He thanked them Tuesday for their prayers. Surrounded by his wife, Karen, and a few of their seven children, he also told them of his commitment to “the integrity of the family and the centrality of faith in our lives.”

“The time is now for conservatives to pull together,” he said. “The time is now to make sure … that we have the best chance to win this election, and the best chance to win this election is to nominate a conservative to go up against Barack Obama who can take him on on every issue.”

Gingrich, appearing subdued as he addressed supporters in Hoover, Ala., signaled he had no intention, certainly for the moment, of ceding that role to Santorum.

“The elite media’s effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed,” he said. “If you’re a front-runner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a front-runner.”

Gingrich conceded that he wound up “not getting as many votes” as he would have liked, adding, “But we were clearly changing the national dialogue in the last week,” referring to his vow to bring gasoline prices down to $2.50 a gallon if he becomes president.

“We are already impacting the national debate on a scale that all of Romney’s ad money hasn’t achieved,” he said. “And we are doing it because ideas matter.”

In Alabama, 47 delegates were up for grabs; in Mississippi, 37. Also taking place later Tuesday were caucuses in Hawaii, with 17 delegates at stake, and American Samoa, with six.

Romney was destined to remain well ahead in the national race for the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. There was no chance that any rival would catch up Tuesday, nor anytime soon, which Romney gladly pointed out as he denounced Santorum for a new TV ad attacking his fiscal record in Massachusetts.

“Sen. Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign and is trying in some way to boost his prospects, and frankly, misrepresenting the truth is not a good way of doing that,” Romney told CNN on Tuesday afternoon.

Santorum’s geographic reach makes him a bigger threat to Romney than Gingrich, who had won only South Carolina and Georgia, home of the district he represented in Congress.

Laying out Santorum’s steep challenge in accumulating delegates, Romney sought to play down the potential danger ahead. “If you look at the math of how many delegates he’d have to win to become the nominee, it’s a very difficult road for him,” he said.

The protracted delegate fight has raised the possibility that none of the three contenders will reach the threshold needed to secure the nomination before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August.

For Romney’s opponents, the scramble only gets tougher as the number of remaining contests dwindles, even with a convoluted nominating process that has spawned wide variations in the delegate count, depending on who is doing the tally.

“The fact is that the longer this race goes on, the better we are,” Santorum told Fox News radio on Tuesday. “And having to go to the convention — if that’s where it goes, it goes — I don’t think is a bad thing at all. Because I think we’ll come out of that convention with a conservative nominee, and that’s our best chance to win.”

Romney has more money, a bigger organization and “Fox News shilling for him every day,” Santorum said, adding that Romney “can’t seal the deal because he just doesn’t have the goods to be able to motivate the Republican base.” (Host Brian Kilmeade bridled at the characterization of Fox News. Santorum declined to retract it, but in a nod to the network’s power, added, “I love you guys.”)

Santorum’s still improbable path to defeating Romney depends upon Gingrich abandoning his candidacy. On Tuesday morning, however, Gingrich rejected Santorum’s argument that conservatives must unite soon to stop Romney.

“There’s a certain advantage, I think right now, in having both of us tag-team Romney, because neither one of us by ourselves can raise the money to match Romney,” Gingrich said in a radio interview on the nationally syndicated “Rick & Bubba Show.” Together, he said, “we’re really slowing him down, with some help, frankly, from Ron Paul.”

Paul, the iconoclastic congressman from Texas with a devoted but small following, skipped Alabama and Mississippi, but plans to campaign this week for upcoming contests in Missouri and Illinois. Paul has lost every state so far, yet has gathered a smattering of delegates.

A telling sign of how unsettled the race remains was evident in plans by the candidates to scatter across the country for the next round of contests. Romney spent Tuesday in Missouri, which holds caucuses Saturday. Looking ahead to the March 20 primary in Illinois, Romney called in for a chat on a Chicago radio show.

Santorum, after his election night party in Louisiana, planned to take off for a two-day trip to Puerto Rico, where caucuses will take place Sunday. Next up for him are stops in Missouri and Illinois on Friday.

Gingrich, who hoped to savor his campaign’s salvation at a gathering of supporters Tuesday night outside Birmingham, Ala., was also Illinois-bound, planning a five-stop tour over two days, punctuated by two school readings by his wife, Callista, of her book, “Sweet Land of Liberty.”

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

john.hoeffel@latimes.com


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