Santorum wins Alabama, Mississippi; Romney takes third in both states

Rick Santorum swept the Alabama and Mississippi primaries Tuesday night, dealing a blow to front-runner Mitt Romney's campaign and giving weight to his argument that Newt Gingrich should clear the way for a two-way race between Santorum and the former governor.

Romney came in third place in both states, which only added emphasis to the concerns that the conservative wing of the party won't coalesce around Romney. A win in one of the Southern states would have bolstered Romney's argument he is the inevitable nominee.

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Santorum told supporters that they were "defying the odds" in a primary in which they were out-spent and counted out.

"People have said, you know, you're being out-spent, and everybody's talking about all the math and that this race is inevitable. But for someone who thinks this race is inevitable, [Romney] spent a whole lot of money against me for being inevitable," the former Pennsylvania senator said in his election-night remarks.

Romney, on the other hand, had no election-night rally scheduled.

Instead, he released a statement, congratulating Santorum but emphasizing his lead in the delegate count.


“I would like to congratulate Rick Santorum on his victory in Alabama and Mississippi. I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight," Romney said.

He added: “With the delegates won tonight, we are even closer to the nomination. Ann and I would like to thank the people of Alabama and Mississippi. Because of their support, our campaign is on the move and ready to take on President Obama in the fall.”  

Newt Gingrich grabbed a pair of second-place finishes and, in his election night remarks, gave no indication he would take hints from the Santorum camp that he should end his run.

Gingrich congratulated Santorum on what he called “a great campaign,” but the former House Speaker made clear that his campaign will continue for some time.

“We’ll have four or five days of the news media and they’ll say why won’t Gingrich quit,” Gingrich said. “The biggest challenge will be raising money, because we came in second, which isn’t as much as we wanted.”

Despite Gingrich's plans for a long race, Santorum's campaign continued to give evidence of why he should drop out.

"We would obviously never call on anyone to get out of the race," Santorum adviser Hogan Gidley said on CNN. "But the fact of the matter is if Newt Gingrich wasn't in the race, we wouldn't just be beating Mitt Romney in these other states, we'd be beating him badly, and that's just what the polls indicate. But this is a democracy, and he has every right to remain in this race, but at this point it's just a really good night for us."

With 100 percent of precincts reporting in Alabama, Santorum had 35 percent to Gingrich's 29 percent. Romney had 29 percent, trailing Gingrich by about 2,000 votes, and Ron Paul trailed with 5 percent.

In Mississippi, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Santorum had 33 percent to Gingrich's 31 percent. Romney had 30 percent, and Paul had 4 percent.

Polls showed Santorum, Romney and Gingrich in a statistical tie going into Tuesday's vote, but Santorum, whose conservative stance on social issues appealed to Southern voters, pulled out a win, despite being out-spent by Romney.

After sounding confident in the campaign's chances, Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, told CNN Tuesday night: "I don't think anybody expected Mitt to win Alabama or Mississippi, as Mitt said early on in the campaign, this was an away game for him and I think that's true."

Fehrnstrom reiterated the argument the Romney camp has been making: that no rival can match the former governor in delegates.

"This is a delegate contest and our goal is to come in and take a third of the delegates, and we will do that. Once the dust settles clears you'll be able to take a look and see there will really be no ground that our opponents have made up against Mitt Romney and as you look at the upcoming contests on the calendar, there are no opportunities for them to have significant wins that allow them to accumulate large number of delegates so they can close that gap," he said.

At stake Tuesday was a combined 119 delegates between Alabama, Mississippi, Hawaii and American Samoa. 

Romney won the contests in Hawaii and American Samoa, but the majority of delegates were concentrated in the Deep South, with Alabama awarding 50 delegates and Mississippi assigning 40. As in previous GOP contests, delegates were awarded proportionally, making it difficult for Santorum or Gingrich to make a serious impact on Romney’s existing lead.

Romney had 454 delegates prior to the votes, with Santorum in second place with 217, according to a count by The Associated Press. Gingrich is in third with 107 and Paul is in fourth with 47. Candidates need 1,144 delegates total to clench the nomination.

Exit polls in the Southern states showed the Republican voters in Alabama and Mississippi identified as being heavily religious, with concerns about the economy and electability driving many voters to the polls.

More than 80 percent of Alabama voters surveyed said they were concerned about the direction the economy was headed, with a similar number in Mississippi saying they were angry or dissatisfied with the federal government’s reaction to the financial crisis.

In Alabama, more than 70 percent of voters in the state described themselves as evangelical Christians, and nearly three-quarters said that a candidate’s faith mattered to them a “great deal” or “somewhat.”

More than 70 percent of voters in Mississippi described themselves as evangelical, according to exit polls, and nearly 8 in 10 said that a candidate’s faith mattered a “great deal” or “somewhat.”

About a third of voters said they had made up their minds in the past few days — those voters tended to break for Romney and Santorum.

Voters in Mississippi said that the top issue to them was nominating a candidate who could beat Obama in the general election — and by a significant margin. The number of voters who put electability as their top concern nearly doubled those who voted based on the candidates’ experience, moral character or conservative values.

Two-thirds of voters in Alabama self-identified as Republicans, while 28 percent said they were independents and 6 percent were Democrats, the exit polling found.

As in the 2008 primary race, about 80 percent of Mississippi primary voters self-identify as Republican, with 17 percent calling themselves independent and 4 percent aligning with Democrats.

Early reports indicated turnout was low on Tuesday as voters braved thunderstorms sweeping across the region. Weather conditions led Gingrich to cancel a planned campaign stop at the Birmingham, Ala., zoo. Election officials predicted lower turnout than in previous years, highlighting the degree to which the race could come down to which candidate could get their supporters to show up at the polls.

Romney had the momentum coming out of the Super Tuesday contests one week ago, when the former Massachusetts governor picked up six of the 10 states — including the pivotal state of Ohio. Those wins followed two other important successes the week before, in Michigan and Arizona.

But on every major Election Day of the past few weeks, Romney hoped a wide-margin win could shut out his rivals for good, and on each occasion he was disappointed.

Acknowledging that playing in the South was “a bit of an away game” for him, Romney sought to portray himself as the underdog there, while his campaign pushed the idea that regardless of his performance in the South, the delegate math favoring Romney had created an insurmountable challenge for his rivals.

Romney and his super-PAC outspent the other GOP challengers in the Alabama and Mississippi air wars, but his opponents fought back to the extent that their campaign coffers would allow. Santorum’s super-PAC hit Romney with an ad targeting him on healthcare — and called on Gingrich to drop out of the race.

“Sen. Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign, and is trying to somehow boost his prospects,” Romney said Tuesday on CNN before the results were in. “He’s far behind in the delegate count. He’s far behind in the popular vote count.”

For Santorum, the foray to the South was a more natural fit — not because he hails from the region, but because his social conservatism and religiously infused rhetoric strike a chord with GOP voters in rural and Southern areas.

The next round of primary contests will take the candidates to Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana, all of which will vote within the next two weeks.

Santorum won a “beauty contest” primary in Missouri in February, but Saturday’s caucuses will determine which candidate will win the state’s delegates. Romney is poised for an easy win in Illinois, while Santorum has the edge in polls in Louisiana, where the former Pennsylvania senator is already on the air.

— Updated at 1:20 p.m.