Santorum's victories give his campaign a huge boost
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum scored a startling double win Tuesday in the Deep South, boosting his claim to be the true conservative alternative to frontrunner Mitt Romney.
Santorum's dramatic come-from-behind victories in Alabama and Mississippi gave his bid for the nomination to take on President Barack Obama in November elections a huge shot in the arm and were a stinging rebuke for Romney.
The results were also bad defeats for former House speaker and southern native Newt Gingrich, as the two states were seen as must-wins for his flagging campaign.
Santorum's sweep of Alabama and Mississippi highlighted how Romney, months into the race and despite more money and better organization, has failed to convince US voters he is the strongest candidate to face Democrat Obama.
Santorum trumpeted his conservative credentials after the victories, in a pointed jibe at Romney, who has not won in the south and whom critics in the Republican Party label a moderate, liberal former governor of Massachusetts.
"We did it again!" Santorum, a devout Catholic and opponent of abortion and gay marriage, told ecstatic supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he had traveled after campaigning heavily in Alabama and Mississippi.
"The time is now to make sure, to make sure that we have the best chance to win this election and the best chance to win this election is to nominate a conservative to go up against Barack Obama."
"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, much of it spent in negative attack-ads on his opponents.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum, a former US senator, was ahead in Alabama with 35 percent of the vote, with Gingrich and Romney tied for second place on 29 percent, according to CNN figures.
In neighboring Mississippi the race came down to the wire, with Santorum on 33 percent, Gingrich at 31 and Romney at 30, with 99 percent of votes counted.
Libertarian congressman Ron Paul of Texas finished a distant fourth in both states.
Hours after the double defeat Romney however, secured consolation wins in the island state of Hawaii -- Obama's birthplace -- and in American Samoa, according to media reports.
With 82 percent of precincts reporting on Hawaii, Romney had 45 percent of the votes ahead of Santorum on 25 percent, according to results posted on the Republican Party of Hawaii website.
Romney had earlier issued a statement congratulating Santorum on his double victory, but insisted he remained best placed to win the nomination.
"I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight," said Romney, who has about 40 percent of the 1,144 needed to become the party's presidential nominee.
"With the delegates won tonight, we are even closer to the nomination," he added.
But experts said Santorum's win showed that he might yet prevail in the race to be the White House nominee.
"Rick Santorum's twin wins in Alabama and Mississippi make him the clear alternative to Mitt Romney," Charles Franklin, co-founder of pollster.com and a professor at Marquette University Law School, told AFP.
"The weak showing continues to highlight the vulnerability of the Romney campaign, especially among the socially conservative Republican base," he added.
Tuesday's results also leave Gingrich with big problems. He has only two wins out of the dozens of contests held so far.
"Gingrich's failure to win either Southern state weakens his rationale for remaining in the race," Franklin said.
Gingrich, who faces calls to quit and allow conservatives to coalesce around Santorum, congratulated his rival on a "great" double win but said he would fight all the way to the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida in August.
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 frontrunner," Gingrich said.
But 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.