Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum supporters in Lafayette,… (Sean Gardner / Getty Images )
Reporting from Biloxi, Miss., and Hoover, Ala. — Rick Santorum scored two major victories in his insurgent campaign for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, winning the Alabama and Mississippi primaries and dealing a potentially crippling blow to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
With most of the votes tallied, Gingrich was running second in both states, followed closely by Mitt Romney.
The twin losses for Gingrich, who devoted a full week to zigzagging across the two states by bus, effectively crushed his effort to resuscitate his candidacy in the South, notwithstanding his vow Tuesday night to press forward.
For Santorum, the victories in the heart of the Republican Party's Deep South stronghold could help establish him as its lone conservative alternative to Romney. Having now won 10 contests in states spanning the nation, Santorum heads into the next round of contests in Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana with a burst of momentum.
"We did it again!" the former Pennsylvania senator told cheering supporters at a celebration in Lafayette, La.
Only Romney had little to lose in Alabama and Mississippi. The former Massachusetts governor, whose talk of eating grits and catfish proved to be awkward overtures to locals, called Tuesday's contests an "away game," forgoing the formality of an election-night party in Alabama or Mississippi 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 shunned Romney in nearly every state that has voted so far -- and did so again Tuesday, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls.
Preliminary results of the surveys found 4 out of 5 voters in Mississippi and a slightly smaller share in Alabama were white evangelicals. They are Santorum's bulwark of support nationwide. He thanked evangelical supporters 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 we liked, 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 on Tuesday, nor any time 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 -- he has now won nine states spanning the nation -- 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.
For Romney's opponents, the scramble only gets tougher as the number of remaining contests dwindles, even with a convoluted nominating process that has spawned wide variations in the delegate count, depending on who is doing the tally.