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Rick Santorum wins Alabama and Mississippi

Rick Santorum may finally get the two-man race he craves after victories in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries Tuesday, a double shot that further rattles overall frontrunner Mitt Romney and increases pressure on Newt Gingrich to withdraw.

"We did it again!" Santorum said at a victory party in Lafayette, La., which holds its primary March 24. "For someone who thinks this race is inevitable," he said, jabbing Romney, "he spent a whole lot of money against me. ... The time is now for conservatives to pull together."

Santorum was expected to do well but the victories dramatically reshuffle the primary. He now stands alone as the candidate with the strongest case of being the grass roots alternative to establishment favorite Romney.

Gingrich, though, refused to concede, saying he was motivated by small donors like Samuel Samford of Jacksonville, who was the 175,000th donor to the campaign and gave $2.50.

While Romney may not lose ground in the delegate hunt, he suffered another psychological blow and will have, at least, several months of battle ahead.

Romney set low expectations in the South but outspent his rivals and strained to make connections, putting down a plate of "cheesy" grits and saying "y'all." Romney began the day upbeat and proclaimed that Santorum was at the "desperate end of his campaign."

Romney was most hopeful about Mississippi and needed a Southern win to pierce a perception of weakness in the deeply conservative and religious heartland of the Republican Party. Mathematically the night will do little to change the course of the race. Romney entered with 454 delegates, according to an Associated Press count, more than double Santorum's 217. Gingrich had 107 delegates and Ron Paul 47.

To win the nomination, a candidate needs 1,144 delegates. Neither Mississippi nor Alabama were winner take all, instead awarding delegates proportionally.

Romney released a statement congratulating Santorum but added, "I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight. Ann and I made a lot of new friends in Alabama and Mississippi and we look forward to campaigning in those states in the general election."

For Romney, losses intensify doubts about his long-term viability among conservatives and set up a long and potentially painful and costly battle with Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator.

Santorum continues his remarkable transformation from overlooked, shoestring candidate to a David-like figure. He has now spread his wins across the country, illustrating a broad appeal. Exit polls in Alabama showed he did well among voters with incomes under $50,000.

In both states, the vast majority of voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians and about three-quarters said it mattered at least somewhat that a candidate share their beliefs. Santorum held an advantage among evangelicals who said shared beliefs mattered "a great deal" to their choice.

Electability remains a top consideration for voters, with about 4 in 10 in each state saying it was their chief concern in choosing a candidate. Asked separately which of the four remaining candidates had the best shot at beating President Barack Obama in the fall, a plurality chose Romney.

That has been a familiar refrain in the nominating contests so far but Romney has struggled to close the deal. As the losses became clear a top Romney adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, went on CNN and played down the results, saying the goal was to walk away with a large crop of delegates. He noted that Hawaii and American Samoa also were holding contests Tuesday but polls were closing overnight.

Fehrnstrom repeated Romney's characterization that the contests represented an "away game."

Romney has been eager to wrap up the primary and focus on Obama, but Tuesday illustrated the hurdles that keep emerging. He had to spend millions to scratch out a win in Ohio last week while grassroots enthusiasm has grown around Santorum, who has been hammering away at Romney as unfit to take on Obama due to the similarities to their health care plans.

Santorum performed well overall on Super Tuesday, but his momentum has been blunted by Gingrich ignoring calls to drop out and make it a two-man race.

Gingrich's aides indicated last week that he needed to win Mississippi and Alabama but the candidate backed away from that. Before polls closed Tuesday, Gingrich's campaign issued a memo mapping out a path to the nomination that cast the state of the race as not quite "half time."

"So buckle up," the memo read. "This race is not going to be won or lost over backroom deals or endless and mind-numbing discussions in the media over delegate counts."

Still, without a win Tuesday, Gingrich will have a harder time raising the money and get less attention from the news media.

Appearing in Birmingham, Ala., Gingrich congratulated Santorum but pointed out that he would still pick up "a substantial number of delegates" headed toward the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

He said the night showed the media's portrayal of Romney as the inevitable nominee "just collapsed."

"The fact is, in both states the conservative candidate got nearly 70 percent of the vote," he said, referring to himself and Santorum. "If you're the frontrunner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a frontrunner."

Romney tried to project an air of strength by campaigning Tuesday in Missouri, which holds caucuses Saturday. He insisted the focus should be on the math and predicted he'd end the night with a third of the available delegates.

"If that's the case," Romney said in Kansas City, "why that inches us closer to the magic number."

Santorum tried to look ahead, too, with his post-election remarks. "This campaign is about ordinary folks doing extraordinary things," he said. Sort of like America."

Santorum said he expected a "huge win" in Louisiana and declared "we will compete everywhere."

With that, he boarded a plane for Puerto Rico.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.

35%

Rick Santorum

29%

Newt Gingrich

29%

Mitt Romney

5%

Ron

Paul

95 percent reporting as of 12:15 a.m.

33%

Rick Santorum

31%

Newt Gingrich

30%

Mitt Romney

4%

Ron

Paul

98 percent reporting as of 12:15 a.m.

• • •

166

days until the Republican National Convention, Aug. 27-30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

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Up next

The GOP race plods on over the coming weeks with all eyes on the March 20 Illinois primary (69 delegates). On Saturday, Missouri holds its caucuses (52 delegates) followed the next day by Puerto Rico (23 delegates) then comes the big showdown in Illinois. Another hotly contested state will be Louisiana, which holds its primary March 24 (46 delegates) and April 3 is a three-fer, with primaries in the District of Columbia (19 delegates), Maryland (37 delegates) and Wisconsin (42 delegates).



Up next

The GOP race plods on over the coming weeks with all eyes on the March 20 Illinois primary (69 delegates). On Saturday, Missouri holds its caucuses (52 delegates) followed the next day by Puerto Rico (23 delegates) then comes the big showdown in Illinois. Another hotly contested state will be Louisiana, which holds its primary March 24 (46 delegates) and April 3 is a three-fer, with primaries in the District of Columbia (19 delegates), Maryland (37 delegates) and Wisconsin (42 delegates).

Rick Santorum wins Alabama and Mississippi 03/13/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 1:29am]

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