Republican presidential aspirant Newt Gingrich is in a make-or-break primary race Tuesday in two southern states generally considered conservative bellwethers.
A win in either Alabama or Mississippi — or both, as he is predicting — would revive his third-place campaign and raise further questions about second-place candidate Rick Santorum's electability.
A loss, however, could make Santorum the single voice of the party's right wing, making him a more significant threat to front-runner Mitt Romney.
Recent polling has suggested Romney may be in better shape than first thought in Alabama, the New York Times has reported. That's partly because of the tight race between Gingrich and Santorum — both of whom have been written off at earlier stages of the primary campaign before startling comeback victories.
By staying in the race, Gingrich could be construed as helping Romney, as his views lean more toward Santorum's than toward the former Massachusetts governor's.
The New York Times's polling-based forecasts gave Gingrich with "a very small lead" in Alabama, while Romney had "an equally small one" in Mississippi. Santorum was running third in both states, but not by much.
On the hustings, Gingrich and Santorum taunted President Barack Obama, with Santorum labelling the president's foreign policy "pathetic" and Gingrich calling him "President Algae" for an energy speech in which Obama spoke of research that would allow fuels to be developed from algae one day.
Gingrich has focused his campaign in recent weeks on rising gasoline prices, promising to bring the price to $2.50 US a gallon if elected from its current $3.80 range — and headed higher during the summer driving season.
A win in either Mississippi or Alabama would be a breakthrough for Romney, easing concerns that the Harvard-educated northeasterner cannot win the party's most conservative and evangelical voters.
Romney didn't plan to be in the state during voting Tuesday and was already looking ahead to contests in Missouri on Saturday and Puerto Rico on Sunday.
Texas Representative Ron Paul was not competing actively in the two contests Tuesday.
Hawaii was also holding a primary Tuesday, but none of the Republican hopefuls campaigned there.