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Santorum sweeps Alabama, Mississippi primaries

A resurgent Rick Santorum swept primaries in Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday night, upending the race for the Republican presidential nomination as he sought to push Newt Gingrich toward the sidelines.
WASHINGTON (AP) - A resurgent Rick Santorum swept primaries in Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday night, upending the race for the Republican presidential nomination as he sought to push Newt Gingrich toward the sidelines.

Mitt Romney was running third in both states.

"We did it again," Santorum told cheering supporters in
Lafayette, La. He said it was time for conservatives to unite in an
effort to defeat Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is
the faraway leader in the competition for Republican National
Convention delegates.

Romney bristled in the hours before the votes were counted,
saying Santorum was "at the desperate end of his campaign."

But it was Gingrich with the most to lose as he struggled for
political survival in a part of the country he hoped would fuel one
more comeback in the unpredictable race to pick an opponent to
President Barack Obama.

He congratulated Santorum on his victories, and poked at Romney.
"If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're
not much of a front-runner," he said in Birmingham, Ala.

There were 107 Republican National Convention delegates at stake
on Tuesday, 47 in Alabama, 37 in Mississippi, 17 in Hawaii caucuses
and six more in caucuses in American Samoa.

Santorum's two victories were worth at least 21 delegates.
Gingrich won at least 17 and Romney at least 16. The split in
Mississippi underscored the difficulty that Romney's rivals face in
overcoming his big lead. Each of the three leading contenders won
10 delegates there with seven still to be allocated.

The day began with Romney leading the delegate competition in
The Associated Press count, with 454 of the 1,144 needed to win the
nomination. Santorum had 217, Gingrich 107 and Paul 47.

That gave the former Massachusetts governor 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 nomination before
the convention next summer.

In Alabama Tuesday night, with 80 percent of the precincts
counted, Santorum was pulling 35 percent of the vote, Gingrich had
29 percent and Romney 28 percent.

Returns from 93 percent of Mississippi's precincts showed
Santorum with 33 percent, Gingrich 31 percent and Romney 30.

Rep. Ron Paul, the fourth contender, made little effort in the
states on the day's ballot.

Evangelicals played an outsized role in both primary states,
underscoring the challenge to Romney. In Mississippi and Alabama,
80 percent or more of voters leaving their polling places said they
were born again Christians or evangelical. Those voters have been
reluctant to rally to Romney's side in the primaries and caucuses
to date. Among them, Santorum bested Romney by 9 points in Alabama
and 4 points in Mississippi.

More broadly, the exit polls showed a primary electorate that
was conservative, determinedly Republican and profoundly unhappy
about the government.

In Mississippi, more than eight in 10 voters said they were
dissatisfied or angry with the federal government, while in
Alabama, 80 percent said they would definitely vote for the
Republican candidate against Obama next fall, no matter who he is.

While Alabama and Mississippi are among the most conservative
states in the country and share a long border, the exit polls
showed significant differences in the voters' reaction to the
candidates.

In Mississippi, Romney had the support of 30 percent of primary
voters who earn under $50,000 a year, compared with 26 percent in
Alabama. He drew the backing of 33 percent of Mississippi primary
voters with no college education, compared with 27 percent in
Alabama.

Only about half of all voters in each state said they work
fulltime for pay, and they, too, voted differently one state from
the other.

Santorum outpolled Romney, 39 percent to 23 percent among that
group in Alabama. The two men tied among that group in Mississippi.

As has been true in earlier primaries, the economy was the most
important issue to voters, and an ability to defeat Obama the most
important quality when it came time to pick a candidate.

The exit polls were based on interviews with 1,552 voters as
they left 30 randomly selected polling places around Alabama, and
with 1,575 Mississippi voters from 30 sites. Each survey had a
margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The Southern showdown came as new polling showed a decline in
Obama's approval ratings - a reversal amid escalating gasoline
prices and turbulence in the Middle East.

Romney, campaigning in Missouri, took exception to a television
commercial airing in both Southern states and said Santorum "is at
the desperate end of his campaign." The commercial was backed by a
super PAC that supports the former senator, not by him.

Santorum's camp had earlier issued a memo that dismissed as
fuzzy math Romney's claim that he is on track to amass a delegate
majority. "Simply put, time is on our side," it said.

Gingrich's aides issued a rebuttal of their own with the polls
still open in the primary states. It said the primaries were not
yet half over, and the former House speaker "is well positioned to
win the GOP nomination."

The large amount of television advertising was testimony to the
importance the contenders and their allies attached to the
primaries in both Alabama and Mississippi.

All three candidates as well as super PACs supporting each of
them ran television commercials. As has been the case all year,
Restore Our Future, which backs Romney, spent more than any of the
others. The group put down $1.3 million for television ads in
Alabama, another $900,000 in Mississippi and more for radio on
Christian and other radio stations as well as thousands of pieces
of mail designed to help the former Massachusetts governor.

It was only in recent days that Romney seemed to sense a chance
in Alabama and Mississippi, and he responded by increasing his
television ad expenditures and his plans for campaigning in the
states.

Born in Michigan and a longtime resident of Massachusetts, he
told one audience the two primaries were "a bit of an away game
for him" and drew laughs from another when he said he hoped to go
hunting with an Alabama friend "who can actually show me which end
of the rifle to shoot."

He generally steered away from criticizing his Republican rivals
and aimed his rhetoric instead at Obama, whose prospects in both
states are as dim next fall as anywhere in the country.

Santorum campaigned against the president and Romney
simultaneously as he sought the support of conservatives who have
fueled his recent surge.

In Biloxi, Miss., on Monday, he ridiculed the science behind
global warming. "The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a
plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is," he said.

Gingrich spent part of his time pushing back against suggestions
- including from his own staff - that he might drop out if he
didn't notch a pair of Southern victories. His only two wins so far
came in the South Carolina primary on Jan 21, and last week, when
he won his political home state of Georgia.

Initial polls showed the former House speaker in a strong
position in both states, but he abruptly canceled a campaign trip
to Kansas in advance of the state's caucuses late last week to
remain in the South.

He used a recorded telephone message from Chuck Norris, the
actor and Karate champion, for a last-minute appeal to voters in
Alabama.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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