Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum secured a pair of dramatic wins in Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday that severely damaged Newt Gingrich‘s campaign, which had said that the former House speaker needed to win in the Deep South.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, again failed to deliver a knockout blow, but increased his delegate count while finishing third behind Gingrich in both states.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting in Mississippi, Santorum leads Gingrich by 1.7 percent with 32.9 percent of the vote. In Alabama, with 97 percent of the precincts reporting, Santorum leads Gingrich by 5.2 percent with 34.5 percent of the vote. Romney is a close third, and Ron Paul brings up the rear in both states.
The three top candidates spent the last week campaigning in Dixie, indulging in the obligatory tasting of grits and catfish, talking of sports and, in one case, trotting out a well-known Southern comedian. (RELATED: See a detailed county-by-county results map of Alabama)
Romney, the frontrunner for the nomination, viewed the contests in Mississippi and Alabama as opportunities to show that he could win in the Deep South. The only Southern state Romney has won so far is Virginia, where his lone opposition on the ballot was Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Instead, with its two third-place finishes, Romney’s campaign announced that it had won delegates and looked to the yet-to-be-decided contests in Hawaii and American Samoa to salvage the night. (RELATED: County-by-county results in Mississippi)
“I would like to congratulate Rick Santorum on his victory in Alabama and Mississippi,” Romney said in a statement. “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.”
Santorum needed the wins in the Southern states to establish himself as the sole conservative alternative to Romney. His campaign has been arguing that he would be leading in a one-on-one race with the former Massachusetts governor if Gingrich was not in the way.
Gingrich, meanwhile, defiantly vowed to fight on to the Republican National Convention in Tampa this summer and taunted the news media for once again declaring his candidacy dead. The former Georgia congressman has only won contests in the South so far, with victories in South Carolina and Georgia.
“When the primaries are over and it’s clear no one person has won, who would do the best job of representing America and winning the election against Barack Obama?” Gingrich asked cheering supporters after Tuesday’s results.
Polls leading up to Tuesday’s voting belied the actual results.
In Alabama, the RealClearPolitics average had showed Gingrich at 29 percent, followed by Romney at 28 percent and Santorum at 26 percent.
Next door in Mississippi, a Public Policy Polling survey released over the weekend showed Gingrich at 33 percent, Romney at 31 percent and Santorum at 27 percent.
Hawaii and American Samoa both held caucuses Tuesday. Hawaii’s polls closed at 2 a.m. ET.