Rick Santorum Sweeps Southern Primaries

It was a big night for Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. He won the primaries in Mississippi and Alabama. Mitt Romney was running third in both states.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

By the end of the night, the best Mitt Romney could say was that he won caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa. In two presidential primaries - in Mississippi and Alabama - the Republican presidential frontrunner fell into third place.

Rick Santorum won both times, while Newt Gingrich finished second.

MONTAGNE: Beneath those results, there is some math that works in Romney's favor. Romney actually piled up more convention delegates than his rivals, given the places he won and delegates awarded in states he lost. The delegate count eventually decides the nomination.

INSKEEP: But his defeats last night are seen as setbacks in his effort to convince the Republican Party he's the inevitable nominee.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It was a close race, but in the end, Rick Santorum won decisively in both states, beating the Southern candidate Newt Gingrich in his own backyard, and overcoming the overwhelming financial advantage of Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICK SANTORUM: The time is now for conservatives to pull together. The time is now to make sure - to make sure that we have the best chance to win this election. And the best chance win this election is to nominate a conservative to go up against Barack Obama, who can take him on on every issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Santorum credited his grassroots campaign for exceeding expectations day in and day out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANTORUM: In spite of all the odds, all the money being spent, all the establishment, all the establishment being on the other side of this race, you stood with a guy who comes from this grandson of a coal miner from a steel town in western Pennsylvania. But you knew, shared your values...

LIASSON: Santorum's campaign says its strategy is to stop Romney from getting the 1,144 delegates needed to wrap up the nomination, even if that number is out of reach for Santorum himself. But Santorum still has Newt Gingrich to contend with. Although last night's primaries once again highlighted Romney's weaknesses, Gingrich and Santorum are still splitting the conservative anti-Romney vote.

Here's Gingrich at his victory party, where he promised to go all the way to the convention in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEWT GINGRICH: I emphasize going to Tampa because one of the things tonight proved is that the elite media's effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed.

LIASSON: And Gingrich pointed out that the size of the anti-Romney vote is still much bigger than Romney's share of the Republican electorate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GINGRICH: In both states, the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote. And if you're the frontrunner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a frontrunner.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: But Romney continues to amass delegates. After last night, he will still have more than twice Santorum's number. For the first time last night, Romney did not hold an election night party. Instead, he put out a brief statement saying, quote, "with the delegates won tonight, we are even closer to the nomination."

Earlier in the day, he gave an interview to CNN, where he repeated his campaign's clinical message, that Rick Santorum can't win because the arithmetic doesn't work.

MITT ROMNEY: I mean, he's far behind in the delegate count. He's far behind in the popular vote count. If you look at the math of how many delegates he'd have to win to become the nominee, it's a very difficult road for him. And...

LIASSON: After last night, however, the road for Santorum looks a lot more inviting, thanks to the support of conservative evangelical voters like Lori Rainbolt, a nurse from Robertsdale, Alabama.

LORI RAINBOLT: I like what he stands for. I think we need somebody in there with some backbone and somebody that has good morals, and I think he does.

LIASSON: Exit polls show that choosing a candidate who can beat President Obama was the top issue for more than a third of voters in Alabama and Mississippi. And, as in other states, more than half of those voters chose Romney, including Bill Brennan, a retiree from Alabama who explained his vote this way.

BILL BRENNAN: I really preferred someone else, but I think that he's - you know, to get this over with, so they can have a longer time for, you know, the election in November.

LIASSON: But it won't be over with for a while, as last night's results guaranteed. Now the pressure will rise for Gingrich to drop out, so Santorum can have a one-on-one contest with Romney.

Here's Alabama Republican Party chair Bill Armistead, who says he doesn't see any way Gingrich can get the nomination.

BILL ARMISTEAD: I think he should seriously consider whether he should stay in this race or not now. We don't need to prolong this longer than we absolutely have to do to come up with the eventual nominee.

LIASSON: There's no sign yet that Gingrich wants to step aside. He told his supporters last night that he is the best person to debate President Obama this fall. So the race continues.

Louisiana votes next week, and so does Puerto Rico and Illinois. The Republican nominating contest has still not found its turning point. Instead, it's become a longer, tougher slog than anyone had expected.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

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