Double wins for Santorum in Deep South
Washington - Conservative White House hopeful Rick Santorum surged to two startling, come-from-behind wins in the Deep South on Tuesday, in a dramatic shakeup in the Republican presidential battle.
Santorum's victories in Alabama and Mississippi give his campaign a huge boost, solidifying his claim that he is the main conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney in the battle to be the Republican nominee to take on President Barack Obama in November elections.
The results are stinging defeats for former House speaker and southern native Newt Gingrich, with the two states seen as must-wins for his flagging campaign.
A Santorum sweep of Alabama and Mississippi is also a slap in the face for Romney, who months into the race, has failed to seal the deal and convince American voters that he is the strongest candidate against Democrat Obama.
"We did it again!" Santorum told ecstatic supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he had gathered after campaigning heavily in Alabama and Mississippi.
Santorum said his grassroots campaign consisted of "ordinary folks doing extraordinary things - sort of like America".
"We will compete everywhere," he said, as he ridiculed Romney's inability to win over voters in several states despite massively outspending his rivals on campaign advertising.
"The time is now for conservatives to pull together," Santorum said.
With about 90% of precincts reporting, Santorum was ahead in Alabama with Gingrich second and Romney third, according to CNN figures.
In neighbouring Mississippi the race came down to the wire, with US media not calling the state until more than 95% of precincts had reported. Santorum was on 33%, Gingrich at 31% and Romney at 30%.
Libertarian congressman Ron Paul of Texas finished a distant fourth in both states.
The island state of Hawaii - Obama's birthplace - was also holding a caucus on Tuesday to choose the party's nominee.
All eyes on Gingrich
All eyes are now on Gingrich, who is fighting to remain viable after winning just two out of the 26 contests held so far.
He faces mounting calls to quit and allow conservatives to coalesce around Santorum, but on Tuesday night, while he congratulated Santorum on a "great" double win he indicated he would fight all the way to the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida.
He also insisted that the narrative of Romney as the inevitable nominee "just collapsed."
"If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner," he trumpeted.
Santorum's camp suggested Gingrich losses in his southern back yard would mean he'd be forced to drop out of the race.
"After tonight, it will be a two man race, Rick and Mitt, and we will clear the field and Rick has a good shot down the road," Santorum spokesperson Allison Stewart told CNN earlier.
"Rick Santorum is the candidate in this race that is the contrast to Barack Obama. That's what people are beginning to recognise," Stewart added.
In a message posted on Twitter, Gingrich insisted "the fight continues! On to Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana."
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