BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum on Sunday nudged rival Newt Gingrich to step aside, arguing a head-to-head contest between himself and Mitt Romney should "occur sooner rather than later." A defiant Gingrich predicted victories in Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and called Romney the weakest GOP front-runner in nearly a century.
Santorum and Gingrich were campaigning hard two days before what has become a potentially decisive Southern showdown for the Republican contenders battling to challenge President Barack Obama in the fall.
Losing Alabama and Mississippi would effectively spell the end for Gingrich, who has banked his waning prospects on an all-Southern strategy. The former House speaker's lone primary wins have been in South Carolina and Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years.
A win for Romney in Alabama, where polling shows a tight contest between Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, could all but bring the GOP nominating contest to a close.
The former Massachusetts governor has built a substantial delegate lead against his rivals but has failed so far to win a state in the deep South, home to the Republican Party's most dedicated base voters. An Alabama victory would provide a key breakthrough for Romney among the socially conservative and evangelical voters who have thus far proven resistant to his candidacy.
Santorum, who has battled to be Romney's chief conservative foe, burnished his standing with a decisive win in Saturday's caucuses in Kansas. The former Pennsylvania senator also carried contests last week in Oklahoma and Tennessee, giving him a toehold in the South.
On NBC's "Meet the Press," Santorum said Gingrich's recent stretch of weak showings suggests he has few options left in the race. Gingrich placed third in Kansas and dead last in Wyoming, whose caucuses Romney won easily Saturday.
"The speaker can stay in as long as he wants, but I think the better opportunity to make sure that we nominate a conservative is to give us an opportunity to go head-to-head with Gov. Romney at some point and hopefully that will occur sooner rather than later," Santorum said, adding he wasn't directly asking Gingrich to get out.
Santorum attended Baptist church services in Tupelo, Miss., Sunday morning and had campaign stops scheduled in Meridian and Gulfport later in the day. Gingrich was also campaigning in Mississippi, where he attended church services at the First Baptist Church of Brandon and later headlined a rally there.
During church services, Gingrich stepped forward at the invitation of Pastor Scott Thomas to describe his religious evolution.
Gingrich, who recently converted to Catholicism, never mentioned his new faith but touched on his well-publicized, messy marital history.
"There are periods of my life in which I have sinned," Gingrich said. "I have been very, very fortunate that I have a very, very close relationship with Callista. ... I had to earn being a 68-year-old grandfather by living through things that I would never want my grandchildren to repeat."
Gingrich has been married three times. He had an extramarital relationship with Callista, his current wife, for six years while married to his second wife.
On "Fox News Sunday," Gingrich compared Romney to Leonard Wood, a U.S. Army general from New Hampshire who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 but lost on the tenth ballot to Warren Harding.
"He's not a very strong front-runner," Gingrich said of Romney. "Almost all conservatives are opposed, which is the base of the party. And I think we are likely to see after the last primary in June, we're likely to see a 60-day conversation about what's going to happen." In August Republicans head to their national convention in Tampa, Fla.
Gingrich also took aim at Santorum, saying his support for earmarks and other spending projects while in Congress had alienated voters from the Republican party in 2006. Republicans lost both the House and Senate that year, and Santorum lost re-election to the Senate by an 18-point margin.
"This is somebody who on a number of occasions had Washington change him — he admits it and he says it's a team sport. You had to go along to get along," Gingrich said of Santorum.
Romney had no campaign appearances Sunday but was scheduled to attend an event Monday night in Alabama.
Meanwhile, this campaign and an allied independent group were far outpacing his rivals on the air.
Restore Our Future, a super PAC run by former Romney advisers, was spending $1.42 million on ads in Alabama and $973,000 in Mississippi. The Romney campaign boosted its television ad spending from $165,000 to $233,000 in Alabama.
Gingrich and Santorum were also benefiting from air support from well-heeled outside groups.
The Gingrich campaign was running about $125,000 in ads in Alabama and $83,000 in Mississippi, while the pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future was spending $413,000 on ads in Alabama and $250,000 in Mississippi.
Santorum had only a nominal presence on the air in both states. But the Red White and Blue fund, his allied super PAC, was spending $275,000 on ads in Alabama and $235,000 in Mississippi.
Wins in the U.S. territories Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands along with Wyoming helped Romney significantly pad his delegate lead in the race. The Associated Press calculates that Romney now has 454 delegates compared with 217 for Santorum, 107 for Gingrich and 47 for Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
A candidate must win 1,144 delegates to clinch the Republican presidential nomination at the national convention.
Elliott reported from Tupelo, Miss. Associated Press reporter Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.
Follow Beth Fouhy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy
Follow Philip Elliott on Twitter at www.twitter.com/philip_elliott
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company