Santorum wins put pressure on Gingrich

Rick Santorum won crucial primaries in Alabama and Mississippi in the race for the Republican presidential nomination last night.

The victiries have dealt a devastating blow to Newt Gingrich and secured Santorum's position as the chief conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.

The results were a setback for Mr Romney, who had hoped to show he could muster the support of evangelical Christian voters in America's Deep South in his quest to be his party's choice to challenge President Barack Obama in November's election.

Mr Romney finished third in both southern states, but he salvaged a win in the Hawaii caucuses and won the support of all nine delegates at Republican caucuses in American Samoa.

The results were especially bad news for Mr Gingrich, who desperately needed a win to show he remains a viable candidate.

"We did it again," Mr Santorum told cheering supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, which holds its primary on March 24.

He added "Now is the time for conservatives to pull together" in an effort to defeat Mr Romney. Mr Gingrich said he had no plans to quit the race.

In Alabama, with 98% of the precincts counted, Mr Santorum had 35% of the vote, while Mr Gingrich and Mr Romney each had 29%.

Returns from 99% of Mississippi's precincts showed Mr Santorum with 33%, Mr Gingrich 31% and Mr Romney 30%.

The fourth candidate, Texas Representative Ron Paul, did not compete actively in the two contests and lagged far behind in single digits.

In Hawaii, with 84% of the precincts reporting, Mr Romney led with 45%, followed by Mr Santorum with 25% and Mr Paul with 19%.

Mr Romney still holds a commanding lead in delegates to the convention in Tampa, Florida, in August.

The former Massachusetts governor is much better funded and has a superior campaign organisation.

In addition, he carries the backing of the party establishment. But the conservative base distrusts his one-time moderate views on important social issues like abortion and gay rights.

Slower still to fall in behind Mr Romney have been voters in the Deep South, where he has yet to win a primary.

He won in Virginia, where Mr Santorum and Mr Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot, and in Florida, where he carried counties with many transplanted retirees from northern states but lost those regions in northern Florida most culturally aligned with the old South.

In defeat, Mr Romney issued a brief written statement congratulating Mr Santorum, 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 Mr Santorum was "at the desperate end of his campaign".

Mr Romney's allies say the candidate's steady collection of delegates to the Republican National Convention makes it almost impossible for his rivals to catch up with him.

But revised party rules, which allow many states to allocate delegates proportionally instead of winner-take-all, make it difficult for Mr Romney to secure the delegates he needs to secure the nomination before mid-summer, if then.

A win in either Mississippi or Alabama would have eased concerns that the Harvard-educated Mormon cannot win over the party's most conservative and evangelical Christian voters.

In both states, 80% or more of voters leaving their polling places said they were born- again Christians or evangelicals. Exit polls showed an electorate which is conservative, determinedly Republican and profoundly unhappy about the government.

The numbers spelled good news for Mr Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and deeply conservative Catholic who has captured the hearts of his party's base.

"People of Mississippi and Alabama want a conservative," he told reporters in Biloxi, Mississippi, before the results were tallied, pressing his argument that Mr Gingrich should consider stepping aside.

"If they want a conservative nominee for sure, they can do that by lining up behind us and making this race clearly a two-person race outside of the South."

The survival of Mr Gingrich's campaign had essentially rested on winning both of yesterday's contests. The former speaker of the House of Representatives has pursued an all-Southern strategy, but he has won only South Carolina and Georgia, the state he represented in Congress for 20 years.

He congratulated Mr Santorum on his victories, and poked fun at Mr Romney. "If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner," he said in Birmingham, Alabama.

There were 107 Republican National Convention delegates at stake yesterday - 47 in Alabama, 37 in Mississippi, 17 in Hawaii caucuses and six more in caucuses in American Samoa.

Mr Romney picked up all six delegates from American Samoa, plus the endorsement of three members of the Republican National Committee. The Republican caucus on the island 2,300 miles (3,700km) south of Hawaii was held at the Toa Bar & Grill in Pago Pago and about 70 people attended.

Last weekend, Mr Romney captured all 18 delegates at caucuses in two other US possessions in the Pacific - Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Like American Samoa, residents there are US citizens but not allowed to vote in presidential elections.

Mr Santorum's two victories yesterday were worth at least 29 delegates. Mr Gingrich won at least 24 and Mr Romney at least 31. The split underlined the difficulty that Mr Romney's rivals face in overcoming his big lead.

The partial allocation of delegates from yesterday's voting states left Mr Romney with 485 in The Associated Press count, out of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination. Mr Santorum had 246, Mr Gingrich 131 and Mr Paul 47.

Mr Santorum and Mr Romney planned to campaign in the next few days in Puerto Rico, which holds a primary on Sunday. Twenty-three delegates are at stake in the US territory.

Illinois holds its primary next Tuesday, and already the super political action committee supporting Mr Romney was advertising there in hopes of giving him an advantage.

The Deep South primaries occurred as new polling showed a steep drop in Mr Obama's approval ratings, a decline that coincides with rapidly climbing petrol prices as a result of renewed turbulence in the Middle East.

The political turmoil across the Mid East and North Africa has been exacerbated by fears that Israel is preparing a military attack on Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46% of those surveyed approve the way the president is handling his job, and 50% disapprove. A New York Times/CBS poll found 41% approval, and 47% disapproval.

The Gallup daily tracking poll put Mr Obama's approval rating at 47% and showed US economic confidence at a four-year high.

Yesterday, the president, who is unopposed for the Democratic nomination, won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO labour federation.

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