WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum took a slight edge Tuesday among Alabama's huge bloc of white born-again or evangelical Christians, while the three chief rivals for the Republican presidential nomination were splitting that same crucial group in Mississippi, according to early results of exit polls of both states' voters.
White born-again Christians accounted for 8 in 10 Alabamans going to the polls, the most in any state this year where voters have been surveyed. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has emphasized the pivotal role Catholicism has played in his life, was winning more than a third of those voters, several percentage points ahead of both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
Such voters also comprised nearly 3 in 4 in Mississippi, a figure unsurpassed by any previous state to vote. Santorum, Romney and Gingrich each had around one-third of their votes.
Santorum and Gingrich, the former House speaker, were leading among the most conservative voters in both Deep South states. Romney, the one-time Massachusetts governor, was doing well among each state's more moderate voters and those who are not born-again Christians.
The three contenders were also running closely in Alabama and Mississippi among people without college degrees.
That characteristic is widely used to measure blue-collar voters, a constituency that the GOP must dominate in the general election to offset Democratic advantages with other groups. Nearly 6 in 10 in both states lacked degrees, ranking both at the top in that category among states that have voted so far.
Santorum was running evenly with Gingrich in Alabama when voters were asked which candidate best understood the problems of typical Americans, an attempt to measure the empathy that voters see in the contenders. In Mississippi, Gingrich was ahead with that group.
As with every state so far, the largest group of voters in Alabama and Mississippi selected the economy as the issue that mattered most. Romney had a slight advantage among voters focused on the economy in Alabama, while the three contenders divided such voters in Mississippi about evenly.
Romney, the wealthy former private equity executive, has made repairing the economy a top focus of his campaign and has prevailed among voters concerned about that issue in most states so far in 2012.
Tuesday's exit polls showed Alabama and Mississippi to be among the more conservative states to vote this year. Gingrich and Santorum were sharing a lead among both state's most conservative voters.
Around two-thirds in Mississippi and Alabama expressed support for the tea party, making them among the stronger supporters of the conservative, small government movement thus far. The three leading candidates were running roughly evenly with such voters.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul put little effort into those races.
More than 8 in 10 in Mississippi said they are unhappy with how the federal government in working, including 4 in 10 saying they are angry. The question was not asked in Alabama.
Around 4 in 10 in both states cited the ability to defeat President Barack Obama in the November election as the main quality they are seeking in a candidate. Given four choices, that has been the top factor named in every state so far.
But that is not the only quality GOP voters crave. The three other options — having a strong moral character, being a true conservative and having the proper experience — when taken together attract more than half of the voters in every state so far.
The surveys of voters in Alabama's and Mississippi's GOP presidential primaries were conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results from 1,024 Alabama voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites, and from 1,102 Mississippi voters as they left 30 polling places. Each survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
AP news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.