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Santorum wins Alabama presidential primary, leads in Mississippi

By Phillip Rawls and David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 13 2012 8:30 p.m. MDT

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, kneel down and pray as they wait for him to speak at his primary night watch party in Lafayette, La., Tuesday, March 13, 2012.rn

Associated Press

Read: Why Alabama's primary really, really matters for Mitt Romney

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Rick Santorum has won Alabama's presidential primary, with Newt Gingrich running second.

With 51 percent of the precincts reporting Tuesday night, Santorum had 35 percent of the votes, Gingrich 30 percent, Mitt Romney 28 percent, and Ron Paul 5 percent.

Santorum couldn't match Gingrich and Romney in campaign spending or organization in Alabama. But exit polling he had strong appeal with white born-again Christians, who made up nearly three-fourths of the Republican primary voters.

The exit polling was based on interviews with 1,589 voters at 30 randomly selected polling places.

Romney, the faraway front-runner in the delegate chase, bristled in the hours before the votes were counted, saying Santorum was "at the desperate end of his campaign."

But Santorum declared late Tuesday as the votes were still being counted, "We're on our way to victory tonight and we're on our way to victory in this election."

It was Gingrich with the most to lose as he struggled for political survival in a part of the country he hoped would fuel one more comeback in the unpredictable race to pick an opponent to President Barack Obama.

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

In Alabama, with 29 percent of the precincts counted, Santorum was pulling 35 percent of the vote, Gingrich had 30 percent and Romney 28 percent.

Returns from 58 percent of Mississippi's precincts showed Santorum with 33 percent, Gingrich 32 percent and Romney 30.

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.

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