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GOP candidates spar before key Miss., Ala. primaries

Rick Santorum, who is battling to be Mitt Romney’s chief conservative foe, waves to supporters Sunday in Mississippi.

Associated Press

Rick Santorum, who is battling to be Mitt Romney’s chief conservative foe, waves to supporters Sunday in Mississippi.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum on Sunday nudged rival Newt Gingrich to step aside, arguing a head-to-head contest between himself and Mitt Romney should "occur sooner rather than later."

A defiant Gingrich predicted victories in Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and called Romney the weakest Republican front-runner in nearly a century.

Santorum and Gingrich were campaigning hard two days before what has become a potentially decisive Southern showdown for the GOP field.

Losing Alabama and Mississippi would effectively spell the end for Gingrich, who has banked his waning prospects on an all-Southern strategy. The former House speaker's lone primary wins have been in South Carolina and Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years.

A win for Romney in Alabama, where polling shows a tight contest between Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, could all but bring the GOP nominating contest to a close. The former Massachusetts governor has built a substantial delegate lead against his rivals but has failed so far to win a state in the Deep South, home to the Republican Party's most conservative voters.

Santorum, who has battled to be Romney's chief conservative foe, burnished his standing with a decisive win in Saturday's caucuses in Kansas. The former Pennsylvania senator also carried contests last week in Oklahoma and Tennessee, giving him a toehold in the South.

On NBC's Meet the Press, Santorum said Gingrich's recent stretch of weak showings suggests he has few options left in the race. Gingrich placed third in Kansas and dead last in Wyoming, whose caucuses Romney won easily Saturday.

"The speaker can stay in as long as he wants, but I think the better opportunity to make sure that we nominate a conservative is to give us an opportunity to go head-to-head with Gov. Romney at some point and hopefully that will occur sooner rather than later," Santorum said, adding he wasn't directly asking Gingrich to get out.

Santorum attended church in Tupelo, Miss., on Sunday morning and had campaign stops scheduled in Meridian and Gulfport later in the day. Gingrich was also campaigning in Mississippi, where he planned to attend Baptist church services in Brandon and headline a rally there.

On Fox News Sunday, Gingrich compared Romney to Leonard Wood, a U.S. Army general from New Hampshire who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 but lost on the tenth ballot to Warren Harding.

"He's not a very strong front-runner," Gingrich said of Romney. "Almost all conservatives are opposed, which is the base of the party."

Gingrich also took aim at Santorum, saying his support for earmarks and other spending projects while in Congress had alienated voters from the GOP in 2006. Republicans lost both the House and Senate that year, and Santorum lost re-election to the Senate by an 18-point margin.

Romney had no campaign appearances Sunday. He planned to campaign in Alabama today.

GOP candidates spar before key Miss., Ala. primaries 03/11/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 11, 2012 10:27pm]

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