POLITICS

Santorum wins two southern primaries, humiliating Gingrich and Romney

03/13/2012 04:20 EDT | Updated 05/13/2012 05:12 EDT
WASHINGTON - Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum scored a major victory in America's Deep South on Tuesday, winning two primaries in Alabama and Mississippi in a potentially dramatic shakeup of the party's wildly unpredictable presidential race.

Mitt Romney finished third in both states, but he salvaged a win in the Hawaii caucuses and won the support of all nine delegates at GOP caucuses in American Samoa.

Santorum's triumphs in Alabama and Mississippi denied front-runner Romney a huge night in the South, where polls had suggested he was in a strong position to take both primaries after vastly out-spending, yet again, his three rivals for the nomination.

Just a few hours earlier, Romney told CNN that Santorum was "at the desperate end" of his campaign.

The Deep South primaries proved him embarrassingly wrong while also putting southerner Newt Gingrich's campaign on life support, despite his determination to remain in the race.

Santorum won 33 per cent of the vote in Mississippi in early, unofficial results. Romney was in second place with 31 per cent.

In Alabama, Santorum took 35 per cent of the vote. Gingrich and Romney were duking it out for second place at about 29 per cent of the vote. Romney did pick up more delegates than Santorum did on Tuesday, thanks to a nine-delegate sweep in American Samoa and a victory in Hawaii's caucuses.

The results prove Santorum is a national, not a regional, candidate. He's won in the South, in the Midwest and performed heroically in the so-called Rust Belt, coming excruciatingly close to beating Romney even in the millionaire Mormon's home state of Michigan.

"For someone who thinks this race is inevitable, he's spending a whole lot of money against me," Santorum said in Louisiana, holding its own primary soon, after he won Alabama.

The state, with its large population of evangelical voters, certainly represented friendly ideological turf for Santorum. Eighty-four delegates were at stake in Alabama and Mississippi.

The win by Santorum bolsters two of his campaign's arguments: that Gingrich should drop out of the race and free up his socially conservative supporters, and that Romney can neither win the support of evangelicals nor get votes in yet another key region of the United States.

Gingrich insisted he was in the race to stay, however, reiterating his proclamation that he could crush U.S. President Barack Obama in a debate. He also sneered at Romney.

"If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner," Gingrich, himself a frequent third-place finisher, said in Alabama.

Even before the results were known in Mississippi, a senior adviser for the Romney campaign was on CNN insisting his candidate wasn't expected to win either state and yet would still walk away with some of the contests' delegates.

"Our goal was to come in, take a third of the delegates. We will do that," said Eric Fehrnstrom, predicting there was little chance Santorum could catch up to Romney even with Alabama and Mississippi under his belt.

And for all Gingrich's bluster, it was an undeniably disappointing night for the candidate who'd portrayed himself as a native son of the South given he served Georgia for two decades as a U.S. congressman. But with the Pennsylvania-born Gingrich failing to take either state, the calls for him to drop out were sure to intensify.

Nonetheless his chief of staff, Patrick Millsaps, told CNN even before the results were known that Gingrich would remain in the race. He noted the former speaker of the House of Representatives would pick up some delegates and move on to the next contests in Illinois and Louisiana.

The Southern showdown dawned as new polls suggest Obama's approval ratings are plummeting as gas prices soar and tensions in the Middle East flare.

A Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 46 per cent approve of Obama's job performance, while 50 per cent disapprove. A New York Times-CBS poll found 41 per cent approve while 47 per cent disapprove.

Polls in the South have suggested the region's voters believe Romney has the best chance of beating Obama in November's election. The former Massachusetts governor pointed to those surveys in recent days.

"The other guys are nice folks, but they have not organized a campaign with a staff, the organization, the fund-raising capacity to actually beat Barack Obama. I have," he said.

Voters in Mississippi and Alabama headed to the polls after watching the party's candidates contort themselves for weeks to prove they had uniquely southern sensibilities.

Romney swore he loved grits, a porridge-like southern culinary staple. Gingrich spoke of the importance of having a gun rack on the roof of his car. Santorum insisted only he truly shared the evangelical beliefs of southerners.

The southern contests have taken on a special significance as Romney struggles to decisively win over the party's stratified base of voters.

Hawaii and American Samoa were also holding Republican caucuses on Tuesday, but it was the results in the Deep South that could redefine the race in the weeks to come as Romney toils mightily to notch the type of sweeping victory that could give him the momentum to secure the nomination before the party's convention in August.

Santorum's campaign has been wistfully dreaming for weeks about how well their candidate would be doing if Gingrich had only dropped out after the Florida primary last month. Santorum, indeed, has been indirectly pushing Gingrich to leave the race; he did so again earlier Tuesday.

"People of Mississippi and Alabama want a conservative," Santorum told reporters in Biloxi, Miss. "If they want a conservative nominee for sure, they can do that by lining up behind us and making this race clearly a two-person race outside of the South."

Santorum's two victories Tuesday were worth at least 29 delegates. Gingrich won at least 24 and Romney at least 31, including the nine from American Samoa. The delegate split underscored the difficulty that Romney's rivals face in overcoming his big lead.

A tally by The Associated Press shows Romney with 485 of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination, followed by Santorum with 246 and Gingrich with 131. Paul trails with 47. The more delegates amassed by Romney, the more daunting the task for the three other candidates to catch up, meaning he's likely still on pace to secure the nomination before the party's convention in August.