Eric Gay, Associated Press
In this Monday, March 12, 2012, photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum campaign in Montgomery, Ala. Santorum won the Republican presidential primary Tuesday, March 13, in Alabama
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The plodding Republican presidential nomination fight is grinding forward toward Puerto Rico — and a two-man race, with Rick Santorum ascendant and Mitt Romney vanquished in the Deep South.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the former Georgia lawmaker whose Southern strategy stalled, was all but relegated to an asterisk in the contest even as he vowed to stay in it.
"Now is the time to pull together," Santorum declared to conservatives in Lafayette, La., after winning Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, urging the party's faithful to unite behind him to beat Romney. "We are campaigning everywhere there are delegates because we are going to win this nomination before the convention."
Unbowed, Romney issued a statement noting his strong lead in the hunt for delegates to the GOP convention, saying, "I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight." Earlier Tuesday, in an interview with CNN, Romney had said Santorum was "at the desperate end of his campaign."
Romney fared much better in the night's two Pacific island contests. He salvaged a win in the Hawaii caucuses and won the support of all nine delegates at GOP caucuses in American Samoa.
The race now turns to Puerto Rico, which holds a primary Sunday.
Santorum flew here fresh off his Southern victories, and planned events over the next two days. Romney was slated to parachute into the U.S. territory at the end of the week after spending two days in New York City to raise money.
Tuesday night's results marked the continuation of a long, hard-fought Republican nomination fight — and underscored Romney's persistent weakness with conservatives, particularly in the GOP's regional stronghold of the Deep South. Together, Santorum and Gingrich accounted for huge majorities of votes in both states, prompting Gingrich to crow: "The fact is, in both states, the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote. If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner."
While Romney has huge organizational and financial advantages, he is struggling to connect with a conservative GOP base that looks skeptically on his moderate past.
The protracted race forces Romney to have to continue to focus on the nomination fight as President Barack Obama is free to focus on the general election campaign coming up this fall.
Romney's campaign had been hoping for at least one Southern victory Tuesday that might have allowed the candidate to start arguing it was time for the party to unite behind him and begin the general election against Obama. Even a split between Santorum and Gingrich would have allowed the former Massachusetts governor to argue that his opposition was fractured and no other candidate was able to unite conservatives.
Instead, Romney now faces a resurgent Santorum — and he is without the overwhelming financial advantage he's enjoyed throughout the rest of the early states. Still, he's ahead in delegates.
Santorum's victories Tuesday were worth at least 34 delegates, but Romney won at least 40. Gingrich won at least 24, while Ron Paul picked up at least one. The delegate split underscored the difficulty that Romney's rivals face in overcoming his big lead.
The partial allocation of delegates from Tuesday's voting states left Romney with 494 in The Associated Press count, out of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination. Santorum had 251, Gingrich 131 and Paul 48.
That gives Romney more than his rivals combined. And while Santorum in particular challenges the mathematical projections, Romney still is amassing delegates at a rate that puts him on track to clinch control of nomination before the convention next summer.
Santorum's camp had earlier issued a memo that dismissed Romney's claim that he is on track to amass a delegate majority. "Simply put, time is on our side," it said.
Gingrich's aides issued a rebuttal of their own with the polls still open in the primary states. It said the primaries were not yet half over, and the former House speaker "is well positioned to win the GOP nomination."
It is rare for Alabama and Mississippi to play an important role in a Republican nominating campaign, but the 2012 race has gone on far longer than usual. Equally improbable was the decision by Santorum and Romney to campaign in the next few days in Puerto Rico.
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Illinois holds its primary next Tuesday, and the Romney-aligned super PAC is already advertising there in hopes of giving him an advantage.
The super PAC couldn't hand Romney any Southern victories. All three candidates, as well as the super PACs supporting each of them, ran television commercials in those states. As has been the case all year, Restore Our Future, which backs Romney, spent more than any of the others, putting down $1.3 million for television ads in Alabama and another $900,000 in Mississippi.