- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Bolstering his claim that he’s the strongest conservative in the Republican presidential field, Rick Santorum swept the Alabama and Mississippi primaries on Tuesday, sending a strong signal to Mitt Romney that the GOP front-runner still isn’t connecting with a big chunk of the party’s deeply conservative base.

The twin victories, though, were not enough for Mr. Santorum to make up ground on Mr. Romney in the chase toward the 1,144 delegates needed to wrap up the nomination, as the former Massachusetts governor would later emerge victorious in the smaller caucus contests in Hawaii and American Samoa — ending the day with bigger delegate gains compared to his rivals.

The Associated Press called both states for the former Pennsylvania senator shortly after 10:30 p.m., capping a fast-moving seven days that saw Mr. Santorum, Mr. Romney and Newt Gingrich campaign furiously for votes across the Deep South.

With 98 percent of the precincts counted in Alabama, Mr. Santorum pulled in 38 percent of the vote; Mr. Gingrich, 23 percent; and Mr. Romney, 23 percent, according to the AP. In Mississippi, Mr. Santorum held 35 percent; Mr. Gingrich, 32 percent; and Mr. Romney, 32 percent with 99 percent of the precincts counted.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who finished in single digits in both primaries, basically skipped the southern states to focus his money and energy elsewhere — though he did pick up a single delegate in the Hawaii caucuses.

Taken together, Mr. Romney walked away with at least 40 delegates and Mr. Santorum won at least 34, while Newt Gingrich added at least 24 delegates and Ron Paul got at least 1, according to the AP.

There were more than 107 delegates to the Republican National Convention up for grabs Tuesday: 47 in Alabama, 37 in Mississippi, 17 in Hawaii caucuses and six more in caucuses in American Samoa.

At an election-night party in Lafayette, La., Mr. Santorum opened his victory speech with, “We did it again.”

Promising supporters that he plans to “compete everywhere” in the upcoming contests, the former Pennsylvania senator said, “The time is now for conservatives to pull together. 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.”

The good news for the Santorum campaign was generally viewed as bad news for Mr. Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman who had predicted he would win in both Southern states.

But in his comments to supporters in Birmingham, Ala., the former House speaker and longtime Georgia congressman made it clear he has no intentions of stepping aside before the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., in August.

“I emphasize going to Tampa because one of the things tonight proves is that the elite media’s attempts to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed,” he said to cheers.

“I don’t believe that a Massachusetts moderate that created ‘Romneycare’ as the forerunner of ‘Obamneycare’ is going to be in a position to win any of the debates this fall. And that is part of the reason I insisted on staying in the race,” he said, linking together the universal health care system Mr. Romney signed into law in Massachusetts with President Obama’s federal health care overhaul.

The Romney campaign put a positive spin on the night by pointing out that since neither Alabama nor Mississippi is a “winner-take-all” state, the former governor had still added to his delegate total.

The campaign didn’t schedule an election-night party, but congratulated Mr. Santorum in a late-night statement.

“I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight. Ann and I made a lot of new friends in Alabama and Mississippi and we look forward to campaigning in those states in the general election,” Mr. Romney said.

Earlier in the evening, however, in an interview with CNN, the front-runner expressed a bit of frustration with the rivals he can’t seem to put away — especially Mr. Santorum.

The former governor said Mr. Santorum’s attacks on his record have been “baseless and wrong” and show that the former senator is “at the desperate end of his campaign.”

“He is far behind in the delegate count,” Mr. Romney said. “He is far behind in the popular vote count, and if you look at the math of how many delegates he needs to win to become the nominee, it is a very difficult road for him. So at this stage he is looking for some way to gain ground, I understand that. But I would hope you would use truth as one of the pillars of your strategy.”

Mr. Romney, who has struggled for months to solidify his front-runner status in the race, had hoped that would change after Super Tuesday on March 6, when the former governor took the swing state of Ohio on his way to winning more than half of that day’s 10 presidential caucuses and primaries.

But despite winning in Florida, the Northeast and the West, the Romney campaign is still unable to seal the deal with Republican voters in the Deep South and in the nation’s heartland.

Exit polls from the Alabama and Mississippi primaries spelled out Mr. Romney’s struggle to pull the party’s conservative base  in his direction. Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich easily outperformed him among people who identified as “very conservative” and those who said they “strongly supported” the Tea Party movement — providing additional fodder for the argument that Mr. Romney could be in trouble if conservative supporters of Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich joined forces.

The two Republicans also did better among the large swaths of born-again or evangelical Christian voters, which according to exit polls made up around eight out of every 10 voters in each state.

Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum have been waging a bare-knuckles political fight over which candidate is the true conservative alternative to Mr. Romney, whose support of an individual health care mandate in Massachusetts continues to dog his campaign.

Mr. Gingrich won primaries in South Carolina and Georgia, and has touted the role he played helping to balance the federal budget and reform the nation’s welfare system in the 1990s.

Mr. Santorum, meanwhile, has argued that he opposed the $700 billion Wall Street bailout passed in 2008, while Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich supported it.

His attacks on Mr. Romney’s support for an individual health care mandate in Massachusetts helped propel Mr. Santorum to victory in the Kansas caucuses over the weekend.

He also has won caucuses in Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota and North Dakota, while emerging victorious in the Tennessee and Oklahoma primaries as well, as a non-binding contest in Missouri.

Before the voters were even counted, Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum had already moved on to states with upcoming contests.

Mr. Romney campaigned in St. Louis ahead of the Missouri caucuses on Saturday.

The Associated Press reported that he ignored his political rivals, firing criticism instead at President Obama, whose approval ratings have dipped in recent weeks amid the uproar, largely from his potential GOP rivals, over the recent spike in gas prices.

Mr. Santorum held his election night party in Louisiana, which holds its primary on March 24. He also was scheduled to be in Puerto Rico on Wednesday and Thursday to campaign ahead of the primary on Sunday.

Mr. Gingrich campaigned Tuesday in Alabama, a clear indication of the state’s importance to his candidacy.

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