Conservative White House hopeful Rick Santorum surged to two startling, come-from-behind wins on Tuesday in the Deep South, in a dramatic shakeup of the Republican presidential battle.
Santorum’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi gave his campaign a huge boost and delivered a stinging rebuke for Mitt Romney in the battle to represent the Republican Party in November’s presidential election.
The results were also bad defeats for former House speaker and southern native Newt Gingrich, as the two states were seen as must-wins for his flagging campaign.
Santorum’s sweep of Alabama and Mississippi highlighted how months into the race Romney, still the frontrunner, has failed to seal the deal and convince US voters that he is the strongest candidate to face US President Barack Obama, who will most likely run for re-election.
The former US senator touted his conservative credentials after the victories, in a pointed jibe at Romney, whom critics have labeled a moderate, liberal former governor of Massachusetts.
“We did it again!” Santorum told ecstatic supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he had traveled after campaigning heavily in Alabama and Mississippi.
“The time is now to make sure, 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,” he said.
Santorum said his grassroots campaign consisted of “ordinary folks doing extraordinary things — sort of like America.”
“We will compete everywhere,” he said, as he ridiculed Romney’s inability to win over voters in several states despite massively outspending his rivals on campaign advertising.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum was ahead in Alabama with 35 percent of the vote; Gingrich and Romney tied for second place with 29 percent, according to CNN figures.
In neighboring Mississippi the race came down to the wire, with Santorum on 33 percent, Gingrich at 31 and Romney at 30, with 99 percent of votes counted.
Libertarian US Representative Ron Paul of Texas finished a distant fourth in both states. The island state of Hawaii — Obama’s birthplace — was also holding a caucus on Tuesday to choose the party’s nominee.
Romney issued a statement congratulating Santorum on the win, but insisted he remained best placed to win the nomination.
“I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight,” said Romney, who has about 40 percent of the 1,144 needed to become the party’s presidential nominee.
“With the delegates won tonight, we are even closer to the nomination,” he added.
All eyes, however, turned to Gingrich, who is fighting to remain viable after winning just two out of the 26 contests held so far.
He faces mounting calls to quit and allow conservatives to coalesce around Santorum, but on Tuesday night, while he congratulated Santorum on a “great” double win, he indicated he would fight all the way to the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, in August.
He added that the narrative of Romney as the inevitable nominee “just collapsed.”
“If you’re the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a frontrunner,” Gingrich said.