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Santorum earns stunning double win in deep South

14 march 2012, 14:39
0
Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. ©AFP
Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. ©AFP
Conservative White House hopeful Rick Santorum surged to two startling, come-from-behind wins Tuesday in the deep South, in a dramatic shakeup in the Republican presidential battle, AFP reports.

Santorum's victories in Alabama and Mississippi give his campaign a huge boost, solidifying his claim that he is the main conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney in the battle to be the Republican nominee to take on President Barack Obama in November elections.

The results are stinging defeats for former House speaker and southern native Newt Gingrich, with the two states seen as must-wins for his flagging campaign.

A Santorum sweep of Alabama and Mississippi is also a slap in the face for Romney, who months into the race, has failed to seal the deal and convince American voters that he is the strongest candidate against Democrat Obama.

"We did it again!" Santorum told ecstatic supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he had gathered after campaigning heavily in Alabama and Mississippi.

Santorum said his grassroots campaign consisted of "ordinary folks doing extraordinary things -- sort of like America."

"We will compete everywhere," he said, as he ridiculed Romney's inability to win over voters in several states despite massively outspending his rivals on campaign advertising.

"The time is now for conservatives to pull together," Santorum said.

With about 90 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum was ahead in Alabama with 35 percent of the vote, former House speaker Newt Gingrich was second at 39 percent, while Romney was third at 29, according to CNN figures.

In neighboring Mississippi the race came down to the wire, with US media not calling the state until more than 95 percent of precincts had reported, with Santorum on 33 percent, Gingrich at 31 and Romney at 30.

Libertarian congressman Ron Paul of Texas finished a distant fourth in both states. The island state of Hawaii -- Obama's birthplace -- was also holding a caucus on Tuesday to choose the party's nominee.

All eyes are now on Gingrich, who is fighting to remain viable after winning just two out of the 26 contests held so far.

He faces mounting calls to quit and allow conservatives to coalesce around Santorum, but on Tuesday night, while he congratulated Santorum on a "great" double win he indicated he would fight all the way to the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida.

He also insisted that the narrative of Romney as the inevitable nominee "just collapsed."

"If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner," he trumpeted.

Santorum's camp suggested Gingrich losses in his southern back yard would mean he'd be forced to drop out of the race.

"After tonight, it will be a two man race, Rick and Mitt, and we will clear the field and Rick has a good shot down the road," Santorum spokeswoman Allison Stewart told CNN earlier.

"Rick Santorum is the candidate in this race that is the contrast to Barack Obama. That's what people are beginning to recognize," Stewart added.

In a message posted on Twitter, Gingrich insisted "the fight continues! On to Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana."

Earlier, 45-year-old insurance executive Troy Wolkow, his wife Mary, 46, and his daughter Nicole, 19, all said they had opted for Gingrich.

"I think he's the best candidate. His knowledge, his grasp of the issues and he's somebody that inspires me. If he becomes president, I see him as the most capable of being a leader," Troy Wolkow said.

Roy Watkins, 65, chief executive at Cebert Pharmaceuticals, said he chose devout Catholic Santorum. "The values that he has represent me," he told AFP.

But it was Romney who argued that he alone had the heft to beat Obama.

"It's essential that we have in Washington a president who understands how the free economy works... how free people pursuing their own dreams make a stronger nation. I've had that experience," he told a rally.

Romney is already ahead in the all-important delegate count, having about 40 percent of the 1,144 needed to win the sweepstakes and be crowned the party's presidential nominee at its convention in Tampa in August.

But the Santorum campaign accused him of "fuzzy math."

"The reality is simple: the Romney math doesn't add up and he will have a very difficult time ever getting to a majority of the delegates," the Santorum campaign said in a memo, arguing "time is on our side."

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