03/09/2012 08:39 EST | Updated 05/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Republican race moves to Deep South

The top two Republican candidates resumed their hard-edged attacks on each other on Friday as the race for the party's presidential nomination headed into the Deep South.

While Kansas will put its 40 delegates up for grabs on Saturday, most observers are keeping a closer watch on next week's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. That's where many believe Newt Gingrich's campaign will reach a make-or-break point, the former House speaker's statements to the contrary notwithstanding.

Hoping to tap into deep distrust of Washington, Rick Santorum, who along with rival Texas Rep. Ron Paul spent the day in Kansas, suggested Friday that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner, share a top priority: Take money and freedom, away from Americans so they can tell them how to live.

Looking to shore up support in this Midwestern state that seemed ready to give the former Pennsylvania senator yet another win and further challenge Romney's front-runner status, Santorum likened Romney to Obama and cast both as unacceptable for conservatives.

"We already have one president who doesn't tell the truth to the American people," Santorum said to cheers. "We don't need another. Governor Romney reinvents himself for whatever the political occasion calls for."

Santorum has hammered Romney for a health-care overhaul he signed into law as Massachusetts governor. Massachusetts requires citizens to buy health insurance, a factor central to the health-care law approved by Congress, which Santorum has called unconstitutional.

Santorum's advisers see the issue as Romney's biggest weakness among conservatives, who make up the bulk of the Republican Party's nominating base but have so far split their votes between Santorum and Gingrich.

Campaigning in Alabama, Romney fired back, characterizing Santorum as coming from the Washington establishment he's worked to distance himself from and reminding the former Pennsylvania senator — and voters— about a delegate count that puts Romney much closer to the nomination.

"Washington insider Rick Santorum is lashing out at Mitt Romney because he can't accept the fact that it's nearly impossible for him to win the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.

Santorum was also hoping to muscle Gingrich out of the race in the coming weeks, if not after Tuesday's contests in Alabama and Mississippi. Gingrich's advisers had said the former House speaker must win both states to stay in the race. Santorum's advisers anticipate Gingrich's conservative supporters would turn to Santorum and perhaps derail Romney's better-organized, better-funded political organization.

"We feel very confident that we can win Kansas on Saturday and come into Alabama and Mississippi and this race should come down to two people," Santorum told reporters.

And as the race turned South, the Santorum campaign on Friday hammered Gingrich on immigration, an issue likely to play prominently among Southern conservatives. Santorum turned to a key supporter and immigration hawk, former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., to criticize Gingrich for supporting legislation that would, among other things, allow some children of illegal immigrants to become citizens.

"This is not just an immigration issue but a national security issue, and Newt Gingrich fails our nation on both counts," Tancredo said, charging that Gingrich would "adopt the policies of the left."