Rick Santorum visits with supporters after a rally in Montgomery, Ala. (Eric Gay / Associated Press )
Reporting from Washington — Rick Santorum has won the Republican presidential primary in Alabama, according to a projection by the Associated Press.
Santorum had been running neck-and-neck with Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in the final days, according to polls. All three candidates appeared to be in position to win some delegates, more than half of which are allocated proportionally based on the statewide vote.
Returns showed Gingrich and Romney in a tight battle for second place.
The victory could boost Santorum's effort to oust Gingrich from the race. Even Gingrich’s campaign had said he would need to sweep the Southern states in order to keep his candidacy viable. Gingrich tried to walk that notion back over the weekend, suggesting that he would march on to the party convention in Tampa, Fla., no matter what.
Romney had not been expected to fare well. He told a Birmingham, Ala., radio station last week that the Deep South is “a bit of an away game” for him. Still, a "super PAC" backing his candidacy pummeled the airwaves with ads on Romney’s behalf, and he braved a rainstorm Monday to meet voters in Mobile, Ala.
With 50 delegates at stake, Alabama is the biggest prize of the four states and territories holding nominating contests Tuesday.
Twenty-six delegates will be awarded proportionally based on the statewide results, unless one candidate wins 50% or more of the vote, which is highly unlikely. Three delegates will be awarded based on how the vote breaks down in the state’s seven congressional districts. In each case, two delegates will go to the winner and one to the runner-up, provided he wins at least 20% of the vote. If one candidate wins at least 50%, he’ll receive all three.
The remaining three delegates are party leaders who will be unbound to any candidate. One of them, Republican National Committee member Bettye Fine Collins, has said she is backing Rick Santorum, the Associated Press reported.
Mike Huckabee won Alabama four years ago with 41% of the vote, followed by John McCain, the eventual nominee, with 37%. Mitt Romney placed third with 18%.
More than one-fourth of Alabama residents were expected to cast ballots Tuesday, according to Secretary of State Beth Chapman. There are more than 2.6 million registered voters in Alabama.
In the general election, Alabama is safely Republican for whoever wins the nomination. The state has not gone for a Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter, who was from Georgia, carried Alabama when he defeated President Ford in 1976.