Santorum, Gingrich Eye Southern Primary Victories Mississippi and Alabama hold Republican primaries Tuesday. The two Southern contests are crucial for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. They have been working to pry votes away from Mitt Romney.

Santorum, Gingrich Eye Southern Primary Victories

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The newspaper columnist Michael Gerson put it this way the other day: Having decided on their nominee, he wrote, Republicans seem determined to humiliate him a few more times. Mitt Romney's opponents would not agree that the nomination is really decided, but they are determined to strike a few blows. Over the weekend, Rick Santorum won Kansas. And this week, primaries come in Mississippi and Alabama - socially conservative states where both Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been running close to Romney.

NPR's Kathy Lohr has been tracking Romney's leading opponents.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: With three wins on Super Tuesday and a victory in the Kansas caucuses over the weekend, Santorum is on a high and campaigning hard in the South.


RICK SANTORUM: This can be a very close race here in Mississippi, and I know the same is true in Alabama. We've got lots of folks down here working hard to try to...

LOHR: Santorum spoke at Weidmann's historic restaurant in Meridian yesterday, known for its black bottom pie. The former Pennsylvania senator said he is the conservative candidate who can reduce government and provide the best contrast to President Obama. And Santorum urged voters to do their part in pushing his GOP rival Newt Gingrich out of the race.


SANTORUM: If we're able to well here and in Alabama, then I think this race, without question, becomes a two-person race. I think it's already there, but some people don't recognize that yet.


LOHR: On NBC's "Meet the Press," Santorum refused to admit that Romney has an edge in winning the GOP nomination.


SANTORUM: This race has a tremendous amount of dynamics. And, you know, we've got a lot of states coming up that are going to be great states for us.

LOHR: Santorum says that includes Pennsylvania and Texas, but this week, it's still a battle for the South. Last night, Newt Gingrich took center stage in Brandon, Mississippi outside Jackson, with a stump speech very similar to Santorum's, saying he's the one with the experience to change Washington.


NEWT GINGRICH: And while I like and admire my friend Senator Santorum, the fact is while I was speaker, we passed the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, and we got four consecutive balanced budgets.

LOHR: Gingrich said Santorum voted to raise the debt ceiling five times. And he again tried to put to rest any rumors that he might get out of the GOP race.


GINGRICH: I am in this race all the way to Tampa for a practical reason.

LOHR: That reason, he says, the non-establishment, non-Wall Street wing of the Republican Party deserves a candidate.


GINGRICH: I believe in Proverbs. Without vision the people perish. And I believe we need a visionary, not a manager.


LOHR: As for Mitt Romney, many, like real estate developer Gary Harkins, say people here just don't trust him, and they didn't like Romney's attempt last week to act like he was one of them.

GARY HARKIN: I think that Governor Romney will stop saying y'all by Wednesday, and he probably won't ever eat grits again.

LOHR: Harkins says he likes both Santorum and Gingrich, but plans to vote for the former speaker.

HARKIN: I think he's got more experience and more knowledge, and I think he'll do a better job.

LOHR: Robbie and Heather LaCoste say they could vote for either Gingrich or Santorum. But in the end, it's Santorum.

ROBBIE LACOSTE: You know, he's got a big family. We have a big family. We got four kids. So we like what he stands for, his, you know, his morals and his faith, his values and everything. So...

HEATHER LACOSTE: That family is the strength behind our country. If you have strong families, then you have a strong country. And so I believe he has stronger values.

LOHR: Its clear Santorum wants to do well here. But for Gingrich, Alabama and Mississippi are crucial.

MERLE BLACK: These states provide a direct challenge for both of these candidates who appeal to the same types of voters. Now, who is going to be stronger?

LOHR: Merle Black is a political science professor at Emory University, and an expert in Southern politics.

BLACK: You can make an argument that Gingrich, from the Deep South, would have an advantage in these other Deep South states. On the other hand, in terms of viability as a potential Republican nominee, Santorum looks stronger than Gingrich.

LOHR: Alabama and Mississippi could make or break Gingrich's Southern strategy. And there's another scenario that could play out. If evangelical and conservative voters spilt their support between Santorum and Gingrich, Romney could be the big winner.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Jackson, Mississippi.

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