BILOXI, Miss. — Rick Santorum said Monday his path to the Republican Party's presidential nomination counts on continued chaos in the field and a fractured GOP arriving at its nominating convention in late summer.
Though former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has a commanding lead in the crucial race for delegates to the national convention, Santorum told reporters a day before Alabama and Mississippi's presidential primaries that his standing in the race will improve if conservatives coalesce behind him — and if Newt Gingrich exits the race soon.
"People of Mississippi and Alabama want a conservative. ... If they want a conservative nominee for sure, they can do that by lining up behind us and making this race clearly a two-person race outside of the South," he said.
Romney is on pace to reach the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination in June. He has 454 delegates to Santorum's 217, according to an Associated Press count. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has 107 delegates and Texas Rep. Ron Paul has 47.
At the current pace, Santorum and Gingrich won't come close to catching Romney. Their only chance at winning the nomination is to keep Romney from collecting the needed delegates, then forcing a fight at the convention in Tampa, Fla., in late August.
Santorum dismissed reporters' questions about his hurdles.
"I think you've been listening to math class and delegate math class instead of looking at the reality of the situation. The reality of the situation is that it's going to be very difficult for anyone to get to the number of delegates that is necessary to win with the majority at the convention," he said. "The only way, really, I believe that someone is going to get there is if the conservatives unite."
But conservatives so far have failed to unite, because Santorum and Gingrich continue to splinter the anti-Romney vote.
Gingrich has won only in the South — in South Carolina and Georgia, his home state. His aides had cast Tuesday's primaries in Mississippi and Alabama as must-win states, though the former House speaker later contradicted that assessment and vowed, too, to campaign all the way to the convention.
Santorum suggested Gingrich's appeal was limited to the South and, by contrast, said he had mounted strong efforts from coast to coast. Santorum won in Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Oklahoma, among other states, and came very close to upsetting Romney in Michigan and Ohio.
He also hinted that Romney's inability to connect with voters in deeply conservatives states should give the party reason to worry about his appeal in a head-to-head contest with President Barack Obama.
"There's no away game for me. The entire country is a country that I feel comfortable with," Santorum said in a dig at Romney, who recently described campaigning for the Deep South contests as "a bit of an away game" for him.
But Santorum can't match Romney in money and organization.
"We're playing catch-up," he said. "That's what happens when you compete in every state and you don't have the resources of everybody else."
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Romney's campaign plus an allied campaign committee run by former aides is spending more than $2.5 million on TV ads in Alabama and Mississippi. Santorum's campaign has few commercials there, though a separate campaign committee that supports him is spending around $500,000 on advertising.
Santorum also discounted Romney's appeal within the party.
"They are not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who's been outspending his opponent 10-1 and can't win the election outright," Santorum said on NBC's "Today." ''What chance do we have in a general election if he can't, with an overwhelming money advantage, be able to deliver any kind of knockout blow to other candidates?"
"We're going to be the nominee," Santorum said, adding later. "Gov. Romney will not make it."