We did it again, Rick Santorum told cheering supporters at a celebration… (Eric Gay, AP )
Reporting from Biloxi, Miss., and Hoover, Ala. — Scoring major upsets in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday, Rick Santorum dealt a potentially crippling blow to Newt Gingrich and effectively emerged as Mitt Romney's lead challenger for the Republican presidential nomination.
With most of the votes tallied, Gingrich was finishing a close second to Santorum in both states, followed by Romney.
Santorum's victories in the heart of the GOP's Deep South stronghold give him a burst of momentum heading into the next round of contests in Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana. He now has won 10 contests in states spanning the nation.
"We did it again," the former Pennsylvania senator told cheering supporters at a celebration in Lafayette, La.
For Gingrich, who devoted a full week to zigzagging across Alabama and Mississippi by bus, the twin losses appeared to crush his effort to resuscitate his candidacy in the South, notwithstanding his vow Tuesday night to press forward.
Only Romney had little to lose in Alabama and Mississippi. With a substantial nationwide lead in the chase for nominating delegates, the former Massachusetts governor was destined to remain well ahead in the race for the 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination.
Romney, whose talk of eating grits and catfish proved to be awkward overtures to locals, called Tuesday's contests an "away game," forgoing an election night party in the South to travel to New York City for fundraisers this week.
As elsewhere, Romney and his allies outspent rivals on radio and television ads by huge margins. But most Republicans in the region are evangelical Christians, a group that has shunned Romney in nearly every state that has voted, according to exit surveys.
Romney supporters hoped a surprise victory, or two, was in the offing — an opportunity to speed up his sealing of the nomination.
But preliminary results of the surveys Tuesday found that 4 out of 5 voters in Mississippi, and a slightly smaller share in Alabama, were white evangelicals, and once again he was not their favorite.
That group is Santorum's bulwark of support nationwide. He thanked them Tuesday for their prayers. Surrounded by his wife, Karen, and a few of their seven children, he also told them of his commitment to "the integrity of the family and the centrality of faith in our lives."
"The time is now for conservatives to pull together," he said. "The time is now 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 who can take him on on every issue."
Gingrich, appearing subdued as he addressed supporters in Hoover, Ala., signaled he had no intention, certainly for the moment, of ceding that role to Santorum.
"The elite media's effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed," he said. "If you're a front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner."
Gingrich conceded that he wound up "not getting as many votes" as he would have liked, adding, "But we were clearly changing the national dialogue in the last week," referring to his vow to bring gasoline prices down to $2.50 a gallon if he becomes president.
"We are already impacting the national debate on a scale that all of Romney's ad money hasn't achieved," he said. "And we are doing it because ideas matter."
In Alabama, 47 delegates were up for grabs; in Mississippi, 37. Also taking place later Tuesday were caucuses in Hawaii, with 17 delegates at stake, and American Samoa, with six.
Romney was destined to remain well ahead in the national race for the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. There was no chance that any rival would catch up Tuesday, nor anytime soon, which Romney gladly pointed out as he denounced Santorum for a new TV ad attacking his fiscal record in Massachusetts.
"Sen. Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign and is trying in some way to boost his prospects, and frankly, misrepresenting the truth is not a good way of doing that," Romney told CNN on Tuesday afternoon.
Santorum's geographic reach makes him a bigger threat to Romney than Gingrich, who had won only South Carolina and Georgia, home of the district he represented in Congress.
Laying out Santorum's steep challenge in accumulating delegates, Romney sought to play down the potential danger ahead. "If you look at the math of how many delegates he'd have to win to become the nominee, it's a very difficult road for him," he said.
The protracted delegate fight has raised the possibility that none of the three contenders will reach the threshold needed to secure the nomination before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August.