Rick Santorum may have won the vote in Alabama and Mississippi and Mitt Romney may have boosted his growing delegate count, but the talk on Wednesday was about Newt Gingrich.
Top members of the former House speaker's campaign said last week a victory in one of the two primaries in the Deep South was vital to maintaining his credibility, but on Wednesday Gingrich vowed he would not be deterred, even suggesting that the second-place finishes in both races was "all we wanted."
The stubborn former House speaker is vowing to stay in the race even though he's low on cash and facing pressure to step aside to allow Romney and Santorum to become the focus of the race. The other presidential hopeful, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, has only 16 delegates to date and is not considered a factor in the race.
"Why would I walk off from my party and leave them with two people who can't win?" Gingrich recently told The Associated Press. He insisted he would stay in the contest even if he lost in the region that's home to Georgia, which he represented in Congress for two decades.
Gingrich and his wife, Callista, travelled to Illinois on Wednesday to campaign there ahead of its primary next Tuesday, and he's promising to take his fight to the party's national convention in Florida in late August. But by refusing to step aside, Gingrich could end up damaging his legacy in a party he helped build, a former aide said.
"He believes he can do this, but he and [his wife] Callista are probably the only two people who believe it," said Rich Galen, a GOP strategist. Still, Galen warned, Gingrich's status as an elder statesman of the party could take a hit if he continues his campaign much longer: "It makes him look foolish."
The Romney campaign sought to put the best face on the lacklustre showing in the Deep South, pointing out the former Massachusetts governor aides pointed out that he has accumulated more than half the delegates picked so far.
"Tuesday's results actually increased Governor Romney's delegate lead, while his opponents only moved closer to their date of mathematical elimination," said a campaign memo written during the day for public circulation. And during an interview later Wednesday, Romney dismissed Santorum as a "lightweight" as far as the economy is concerned.
However, Romney invited new criticism from those who say Republican candidates are pandering to religious conservatives by targeting women's reproductive issues on the campaign trail.
In an interview with a television station in St. Louis, Romney said he would "get rid of" Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides health care, including abortions in an estimated three per cent of cases, for millions of American women.
His campaign later hastened to point out he meant he would end federal funding for the program.
“Mitt Romney believes it is morally irresponsible to spend more money than we take in, and he is certainly not willing to borrow money from China to fund our nation’s leading abortion provider,” Andrea Saul told ABC News. “The real question should be why President [Barack] Obama thinks that is the right course for our nation.”
Planned Parenthood called his proposal "dangerous and out of step with what most Americans want." Recent polls do show majorities of Americans oppose cuts to funding for Planned Parenthood.
For his part, Santorum was eager to build on his upset victories.
"If we keep winning races, eventually people are going to figure out that Gov. Romney is not going to be the nominee," he said while campaigning in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that sends delegates to political conventions but whose residents cannot vote.
Time 'on our side'
Santorum's camp outlined a strategy that relies on increasing strength in later primaries coupled with outmanoeuvring Romney in caucus states where the frontrunner showed early strength but delegates have yet to be picked.
"Simply put, time is on our side," his campaign said in a memo early in the week. The campaign pledged a floor fight at the Republican National Convention over the seating of winner-take-all delegations in Michigan and Florida, both of which Romney won. It also envisioned two or three rounds of convention balloting before a nominee is selected.
However, it skipped lightly over Illinois, where the former Pennsylvania senator fell 10 delegates short of a full slate for the March 20 primary and where Romney's campaign is already spending millions.
"Nobody, not even Rick Santorum, thought he'd take both the southern gulf states," the CBC's Jennifer Westaway reported from Los Angeles. "But he proved he had pull with the deeply conservative, deeply religious voters of Mississippi and Alabama."
Santorum called on conservative Republicans stop splitting the vote with Gingrich and unite behind his campaign.
"Now is the time to pull together," Santorum said. "We are campaigning everywhere there are delegates, because we are going to win this nomination before the convention."
Romney's campaign had been hoping for at least one Southern victory Tuesday that might have allowed the candidate to start arguing it was time for the party to gather behind him and begin the general election against President Barack Obama.
Instead, Romney now faces a resurgent Santorum and an unbowed Gingrich. The delegate numbers tell the clearest story.
Santorum's victories in Tuesday's primaries and caucuses were worth at least 35 delegates, but Romney won at least 41. Gingrich won at least 24, while Ron Paul picked up at least one.
The delegate split underscores the difficulty that Romney's rivals face in overcoming his big lead. The partial allocation of delegates from Tuesday's voting states leaves Romney with 495 in The Associated Press count, out of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination. Santorum has 252, Gingrich 131 and Paul 48.
That gives Romney more than his rivals combined. And while Santorum in particular challenges the mathematical projections, Romney still is amassing delegates at a rate that puts him on track to clinch control of the nomination before the convention next summer.