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Santorum sweeps Alabama, Mississippi primaries

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich took second in both primaries, while former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took third.

By David EspoThe Associated Press / March 14, 2012

Rick Santorum thumbs-up supporters after winning Tuesday's primaries in Mississippi and Alabama.

Eric Gay/AP

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A resurgent Rick Santorum swept to victory in primaries in Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday night, upending the race for the Republican presidential nomination yet again and trying to nudge Newt Gingrich toward the sidelines.

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Mitt Romney was running third in both states.

"We did it again," Santorum told cheering supporters in Lafayette, La. He added, "Now is the time for conservatives to pull together" in an effort to defeat Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who still is the faraway leader in the delegate competition to pick an opponent to President Barack Obama in the fall.

In defeat, Romney issued a brief written statement congratulating the night's big winner but also saying, "I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight." In the hours before the votes were counted, he had bristled that Santorum was "at the desperate end of his campaign."

While Romney must regroup, 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.

Appearing before supporters in Birmingham, Ala., Gingrich twice referred to remaining in the marathon contest. But he was unusually complimentary toward Santorum, a contrast to pokes at Romney. "If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner," he said.

It is rare for Alabama and Mississippi to play an important role in a Republican nominating campaign, but the 2012 race has gone on far longer than usual. Equally improbable was the decision by Santorum and Romney to campaign in the next few days in Puerto Rico, which holds a primary on Sunday.

Illinois holds its primary next Tuesday, and already Romney's super PAC was advertising there in hopes of giving him an advantage.

Evangelicals played an outsized role in both of Tuesday's primary states, underscoring the challenge Romney had faced in the Southern primaries.

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 — a combination that will keep both states in the GOP column in the fall.

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