The South's turn: Romney, Santorum, Gingrich vie

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 13 2012 2:05 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich greets Betty Weeks, right, and Helen Smally, rear, at a campaign event, Tuesday, March 13, 2012, in Vestavia Hills, Ala.

David Goldman, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney collided with rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich on Tuesday in primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, hotly contested Southern crossroads in the struggle for the Republican presidential nomination.

Caucuses in Hawaii were also on the calendar in the race to pick an opponent to President Barack Obama this fall.

There were 107 Republican National Convention delegates at stake, 47 in Alabama, 37 in Mississippi, 17 in Hawaii and six more in caucuses in American Samoa.

Each of the three leading contenders faced a different challenge in Alabama and Mississippi, where heavy television advertising was evidence of the states' unaccustomed significance deep in the nominating campaign.

Gingrich struggled for political survival, Romney sought a strong showing to silence his critics and Santorum hoped to emerge at last as the chief conservative rival to the front-runner.

Rep. Ron Paul, the fourth contender, made little effort in the states on the day's ballot.

The Southern showdown came as new polling showed a recent decline in Obama's approval ratings — after they had been rising — amid escalating gasoline prices and turbulence in the Middle East. And those issues were showing up in the Republican campaign.

Romney, campaigning in St. Louis, said Tuesday that Obama has said gas prices are high because GOP presidential candidates are talking "in a very muscular way about Iran and their nuclear program." Obama said in an interview Monday that the biggest driver "of these high gas prices is speculation about possible war in the Middle East" and that his administration has been trying to reduce "some of the loose talk" about war.

In Alabama, Santorum picked up a vote from Gov. Robert Bentley, who had not publicly endorsed the former Pennsylvania senator. Bentley's spokesman said the governor traveled to his hometown of Tuscaloosa to vote for Santorum, whom he considers "the most conservative candidate in the Republican presidential race."

In Birmingham, Gingrich told reporters he felt "pretty good" about his chances Tuesday night.

With polls showing an unexpectedly tight race in the conservative bellwether states, Romney stopped in Alabama on Monday — a clear indication he was eyeing a potential win there.

Evangelical voters played an outsized role in both Alabama and Mississippi, underscoring the test for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Four years ago, 77 percent of GOP primary voters in Alabama and 69 percent in Mississippi said they were born again or evangelicals.

Those voters have been reluctant to rally to Romney's side in the primaries and caucuses to date. His best showing in a heavily contested primary so far was 38 percent in Florida.

The day began with Romney leading the delegate competition by far in The Associated Press count, with 454 of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination. Santorum had 217, Gingrich 107 and Paul 47.

That gave the former Massachusetts governor more than his rivals combined. And while Santorum in particular challenges the mathematical projections, Romney is amassing delegates at a rate that puts him on track to clinch control of nomination before the convention next summer.

The large amount of television advertising was testimony to the importance the contenders and their allies attached to the primaries in both Alabama and Mississippi.

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