Evan Vucci, 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.
Evangelicals played an outsized role in both primary states, underscoring the challenge to Romney. In Mississippi and Alabama, roughly four in five voters surveyed as they left their polling places said they were born again or evangelical.
Those voters have been reluctant to rally to Romney's side in the primaries and caucuses to date. He won 35 percent of their votes in Mississippi, and 27 percent in Alabama, the polling day surveys indicated. His best previous showing in a heavily contested primary this year was 38 percent in Florida.
More broadly, the exit polls showed an electorate that is conservative, determinedly Republican and profoundly unhappy about the government.
In Mississippi, more than eight in 10 voters said they were dissatisfied or angry with the federal government, while in Alabama, 80 percent said they would definitely vote for the Republican candidate against Obama next fall, no matter who he is.
While Alabama and Mississippi are among the most conservative states in the country and share a long border, the exit polls showed significant differences in the voters' reaction to the candidates.
In Mississippi, Romney had the support of 35 percent of primary voters who earn under $50,000 a year, compared with 27 percent in Alabama. He drew the backing of 38 percent of Mississippi primary voters with no college education, compared with 26 percent in Alabama.
Only about half of all voters in each state said they work fulltime for pay, and they, too, voted differently one state from the other.
Santorum outpolled Romney, 38 percent to 23 percent among that group in Alabama. But Romney prevailed in Mississippi, 35-28.
As has been true in earlier primaries, the economy was the most important issue to voters, and an ability to defeat Obama the most important quality when it came time to pick a candidate.
The exit polls were based on interviews with 1,024 voters as they left 30 randomly selected polling places around Alabama, and with 1,102 Mississippi voters from 30 sites. Each survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The Southern showdown came as new polling showed a decline in Obama's approval ratings — a reversal amid escalating gasoline prices and turbulence in the Middle East.
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.
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