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Candidates spar before key Miss., Ala. primaries

By Philip Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 7:15 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich smiles as he walks to the First Baptist Church for Sunday evening services in Brandon, Miss., Sunday, March 11, 2012.

Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum on Sunday nudged rival Newt Gingrich to step aside, arguing a head-to-head contest between himself and Mitt Romney should "occur sooner rather than later." A defiant Gingrich predicted victories in Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and called Romney the weakest GOP front-runner in nearly a century.

Santorum and Gingrich were campaigning hard two days before what has become a potentially decisive Southern showdown for the Republican contenders battling to challenge President Barack Obama in the fall.

Losing Alabama and Mississippi would effectively spell the end for Gingrich, who has banked his waning prospects on an all-Southern strategy. The former House speaker's lone primary wins have been in South Carolina and Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years.

A win for Romney in Alabama, where polling shows a tight contest between Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, could all but bring the GOP nominating contest to a close.

The former Massachusetts governor has built a substantial delegate lead against his rivals but has failed so far to win a state in the deep South, home to the Republican Party's most dedicated base voters. An Alabama victory would provide a key breakthrough for Romney among the socially conservative and evangelical voters who have thus far proven resistant to his candidacy.

Santorum, who has battled to be Romney's chief conservative foe, burnished his standing with a decisive win in Saturday's caucuses in Kansas. The former Pennsylvania senator also carried contests last week in Oklahoma and Tennessee, giving him a toehold in the South.

On NBC's "Meet the Press," Santorum said Gingrich's recent stretch of weak showings suggests he has few options left in the race. Gingrich placed third in Kansas and dead last in Wyoming, whose caucuses Romney won easily Saturday.

"The speaker can stay in as long as he wants, but I think the better opportunity to make sure that we nominate a conservative is to give us an opportunity to go head-to-head with Gov. Romney at some point and hopefully that will occur sooner rather than later," Santorum said, adding he wasn't directly asking Gingrich to get out.

Santorum attended Baptist church services in Tupelo, Miss., Sunday morning and had campaign stops scheduled in Meridian and Gulfport later in the day. Gingrich was also campaigning in Mississippi, where he attended church services at the First Baptist Church of Brandon and later headlined a rally there.

During church services, Gingrich stepped forward at the invitation of Pastor Scott Thomas to describe his religious evolution.

Gingrich, who recently converted to Catholicism, never mentioned his new faith but touched on his well-publicized, messy marital history.

"There are periods of my life in which I have sinned," Gingrich said. "I have been very, very fortunate that I have a very, very close relationship with Callista. ... I had to earn being a 68-year-old grandfather by living through things that I would never want my grandchildren to repeat."

Gingrich has been married three times. He had an extramarital relationship with Callista, his current wife, for six years while married to his second wife.

On "Fox News Sunday," Gingrich compared Romney to Leonard Wood, a U.S. Army general from New Hampshire who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 but lost on the tenth ballot to Warren Harding.

"He's not a very strong front-runner," Gingrich said of Romney. "Almost all conservatives are opposed, which is the base of the party. And I think we are likely to see after the last primary in June, we're likely to see a 60-day conversation about what's going to happen." In August Republicans head to their national convention in Tampa, Fla.

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