Santorum wins Mississippi, Alabama primaries

By William M. Welch, USA TODAY
Updated 13m ago

Rick Santorum won Republican presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi tonight, propelling his candidacy and wrecking Mitt Romney's hopes for a game-changing Southern breakthrough.

While the returns were incomplete, Newt Gingrich was running second ahead of Romney in both states.

Santorum, speaking in Louisiana, took a rhetorical swipe at Romney, the frontrunner who has depicted himself as the inevitable GOP nominee. The former Pennsylvania senator predicted he would win the nomination.

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"He spent a whole lot of money against me, for being inevitable," Santorum said of Romney. He added that "all the establishment" of the Republican Party was "on the other side of this race."

"We are going to win this nomination," Santorum said. "If we nominate a conservative, we will defeat Barack Obama and set this country back on the right track."

Gingrich, in Birmingham, congratulated Santorum and said the outcome showed Romney was far from a sure thing to win the nomination.

"If you're the frontrunner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a frontrunner,'' the former House speaker said.


By Evan Vucci, AP

Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign event in Liberty, Mo., on Tuesday.
Gingrich said he would continue his campaign, saying the proportional allocation of delegates means "we're going to leave Alabama and Mississippi with substantial numbers of delegates.''

With over three-quarters of the precincts counted in Alabama, Santorum had nearly 35% of the vote and a 23,000-vote lead.

In Mississippi, with over 90% of the precincts counted, Santorum had a small lead and 33% of the vote.

Santorum was eager for Gingrich to be swept aside, arguing that he could defeat Romney in later primaries if the race boils down to two main candidates.


By Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Newt Gingrich addresses the Gulf Coast Energy Summit on Monday in Biloxi, Miss.
The fourth candidate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, did not seriously contest either state and was running a distant fourth in both, his percentages in the single digits.

All three hopefuls competed heavily in the two Deep South states. Romney and his allies outspent the rival campaigns.

Santorum picked up the vote of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who said through spokesman Jeremy King that he considered the former Pennsylvania senator "the most conservative candidate in the Republican presidential race."

Gingrich, campaigning in Birmingham, said he felt "pretty good" about his chances in the Southern states.

Among Southern contests so far, Gingrich has already won his home state of Georgia and neighboring South Carolina, while Romney has won Florida and Santorum has won Tennessee.

A victory for Romney in either state which the former Massachusetts governor acknowledged amounted to an "away game" for him would go a long way toward solidifying his claim as the leader for the GOP nomination. Santorum hoped Southern victories could allow him to elbow Gingrich aside and emerge as the leading alternative to Romney.

There were 47 nominating delegates at stake in Alabama and 37 in Mississippi.

In addition, Hawaii was holding caucuses with 17 delegates at stake. Tiny and remote American Samoa, with six GOP delegates, also was holding a caucus.

Polls showed a tight three-way race in the two Southern states, which are unaccustomed to playing a pivotal role in Republican nominating contests.

Gingrich canceled a planned campaign swing in Kansas to remain focused on the South. He leaned on a recorded telephone message from actor Chuck Norris to appeal to Alabama voters.

Evangelical voters were expected to play an important role in the voting in both Alabama and Mississippi. Four years ago, 77% of GOP primary voters in Alabama and 69% in Mississippi said they were born-again or evangelical Christians. Those voters have been reluctant to rally to Romney's side in the primaries and caucuses to date.

Preliminary results of exit polls of voters in the two states showed evangelicals were showing up in numbers unsurpassed in previous contests this year. Around 8 in 10 Mississippian voters said they were were white evangelical or born-again Christians, the largest share measured in any state. Those same voters accounted for nearly three-quarters of those surveyed in Alabama, a proportion reached previously only in Tennessee and Oklahoma states won by Santorum.

Romney went into the contests with 454 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, according to a tally by the Associated Press. Santorum had 217, Gingrich 107 and Paul 47.

Santorum checks Romney, wins Alabama and Mississippi primaries.