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Mitt Romney spared 'romp' in Alabama, Mississippi by split conservative vote (+video)

Conservatives voters in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries split their vote between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, sparing Mitt Romney a potentially lopsided defeat. But long term, the delegate math still appears to be in his favor. 

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The drawn-out GOP nomination contest contains echoes of the Democratic race four years ago, in which Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton battled all the way to June. But the Republican race of 2012 is marked by a sharper ideological divide than the Democrats experienced. Santorum performs best among voters who self-identify as “very conservative,” evangelical, and anti-abortion, while Romney’s base is more moderate, less religious, higher-income voters.

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The split conservative vote took some of the sparkle off Santorum’s victories and saved Romney from a major embarrassment.

“Half the voters in both Southern primaries branded Romney as ‘not conservative enough.’ If they’d only had one place to go, it might’ve been a Santorum or Gingrich romp. Instead, those voters divided between the two, by 44-39 percent in Alabama, 42-39 percent in Mississippi,” writes Gary Langer, pollster for ABC News.

“That was enough for Santorum to win in both states – but perhaps by closer margins than he may have wanted, given his efforts to cement the evangelical and very conservative segments of the GOP vote. This was their home base.”

Two major contests loom – Puerto Rico on Sunday and Illinois next Tuesday. If Romney underperforms in either, anxiety within the Republican establishment is likely to escalate. The possibility that Santorum arrives at the Republican convention with enough delegates to muscle the nomination away from Romney could be devastating to the GOP’s chances in November. Romney said as much in an interview on Fox News Monday.

“Look, if we go all the way to a convention, we would be signaling our doom in terms of replacing President Obama,” Romney said. “We need to select someone to become our nominee, get that person nominated, and get focused on President Obama, and get him out of the White House.”

The assumption built into Romney’s assertion is that that “someone” would be him. But for many energized conservatives, that “someone” should be Santorum. In an interview on CNN Tuesday night, the Pennsylvanian’s senior campaign adviser, John Brabender, drove home that point.

"I think it's time that conservatives and tea party supporters understand that they've got to rally around one candidate," Mr. Brabender said. "That's how you stop a moderate like Mitt Romney like from ever getting the nomination."

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