Elections 2012: Gingrich and Santorum Battle for Deep South Conservatives

Voters in Alabama and Mississippi have their say on Tuesday in the next stage of the contest to select an opponent for President Barack Obama in November’s general election.

A defiant Newt Gingrich predicted victories in Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and called Romney the weakest GOP front-runner in nearly a century. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Republicans Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are in a very close battle for conservative, evangelical voters in Tuesday’s Mississippi and Alabama primaries, with Gingrich’s political survival riding on the outcome, tells Reuters.

Both Mississippi and Alabama have large blocs of conservative and evangelical voters, a vital Republican constituency that has moved toward Santorum in several recent contests.

When Santorum won primaries last week in Oklahoma and Tennessee, he led Gingrich among evangelicals by double-digit margins.

Gingrich’s struggling presidential bid could be at risk with losses in the two states, which would shatter his southern-based comeback strategy and turn up the pressure for him to step aside and allow Santorum to lead the conservative charge against front-runner Mitt Romney.

According to The Huff Post, Gingrich has come under pressure to consider dropping out of the race, as former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) racked up a series of wins on Super Tuesday this past week and then again on Saturday in Kansas.

Most of the calls for Gingrich to end his run have come from those who are supportive of Santorum, including a super PAC working on his behalf.

But if Gingrich does not win Mississippi or Alabama, it’s likely that there will be talk in the GOP — beyond Santorum backers — of giving Santorum a clear, one-on-one shot at frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

The two most recent polls in Alabama showed Gingrich, Santorum and Romney in a virtual dead heat at the top. A Mississippi poll gave Romney an 8-point edge as Gingrich and Santorum split the conservative vote.

The multimillionaire former private equity boss, who turns 65 today, has striven to woo voters wary of the north-eastern liberal elite, even declaring himself an “unofficial Southerner” at a recent rally, reports The Telegraph.

“Mornin’ y’all, good to be with you,” he joked awkwardly. Referring to the local breakfast of porridge-like ground corn, he added: “I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits. I’ll tell you! Delicious.”

Opinion polling in both southern states has been scant, but Mr Romney appears to hold narrow leads over Mr Gingrich. He also leads in Hawaii and American Samoa, which hold caucuses tomorrow.

Many southern evangelical Christians are also concerned by his Mormon faith, an issue that is rarely discussed publicly but which emerged last week during another interview.

“Do you, as a Mormon, believe America is the new promised land?” he was asked on the Rick and Bubba Show. “You’re going to have to go talk to the Church and ask what they think about that,” he replied.

Rick Santorum, the evangelical Catholic who has split much of the anti-Romney support with Mr Gingrich, pledged yesterday to continue battling Mr Romney’s lukewarm campaign.

At the same time Gingrich’s troubled marital history also could be a problem for some evangelical voters in the conservative South.

He is in his third marriage. “It’s an issue for me,” said Carolyn Spears, an undecided retired telephone worker from Quinton, Alabama.

Gingrich vowed on Sunday to push ahead to the Republican convention in Tampa in August even if he loses in the South, where Santorum hopes to land a knockout blow against him.

“I’m committed to going all the way to Tampa,” Gingrich said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “We’re going to get a lot of delegates in both Mississippi and Alabama and I think the odds are pretty good that we’ll win them.”

Mr Santorum won a landslide victory in the Kansas caucus over the weekend while Mr Romney was victorious in the US territories of Guam, the Northern Marianas and the Virgin Islands.

A win by Santorum in either Alabama or Mississippi would prove the former Pennsylvania senator’s ability to connect with Republican voters in the party’s Deep South strongholds and give him a strong argument that it was time for Gingrich to quit.

“The sooner we can get to a two-person race I think the better chance we have to elect a conservative outright,” Santorum told reporters in Tupelo, Mississippi, on Sunday after greeting patrons at a local restaurant.

“Governor Romney’s strategy is to keep as many people in (the race) as possible,” he said.

Taken together, the two states have 90 delegates of the 1,144 needed for the nomination. Combined, that would be the fourth biggest state haul after California, New York and Texas.

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