Victorious Santorum still trailing Romney
Washington - Victories in the Deep South gave a huge boost of momentum to Rick Santorum's bid for the presidential nomination, but left him still far behind front-running Mitt Romney in the all-important delegate count.
Santorum's victories on Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi wrecked Newt Gingrich's strategy for a resurgence in the southern states, pushing him even further behind Romney and Santorum who are now effectively locked in a two-man race to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
While Alabama and Mississippi were the marquee prizes, Romney ended Tuesday voting picking up more delegates than Santorum because of the former Massachusetts governor's nine-delegate sweep in American Samoa and a victory in Hawaii's caucuses.
Going into this week's contests, Romney had more delegates than his rivals combined, and is amassing them at a rate that puts him on track to take control of nomination before the Republican convention opens in late August in Tampa, Florida.
The partial allocation of delegates from Tuesday's voting states showed Romney with 495 in The Associated Press count, out of the 1 144 needed to win the nomination. Santorum had 252, Gingrich 131 and Paul 48.
To date, Romney has won 52% of the primary and caucus delegates, while Santorum has won 28% and Gingrich has won 14%.
At their current pace, Santorum and Gingrich won't come close to catching Romney, but they could extend the primary battle. At Romney's current pace, he is on track to win the delegates needed to clinch the nomination this summer.
Regardless of the numbers, Santorum's sweep in the South on Tuesday displayed yet again that the deeply conservative core of the Republican party does not support a Romney candidacy.
Huge majorities of the Republican voters in both states identified themselves as born-again and evangelical Christians who are unwilling to trust Romney, a Mormon and Harvard-educated northerner who once held moderate positions on key social issues like abortion and gay rights. Romney finished third in both Mississippi and Alabama.
"We did it again," Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, told cheering supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, which holds its primary on March 24. "Now is the time for conservatives to pull together" in an effort to defeat Romney.
Former House of Representatives speaker Gingrich, meanwhile, said he had no plans to quit the race despite his second place finish in both states that his campaign had said he needed to win to remain a viable candidate.
In defeat, Romney issued a brief written statement congratulating Santorum but also saying, "I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight."
In the hours before the votes were counted, he had bristled that Santorum was "at the desperate end of his campaign".
While the delegate numbers still heavily favour Romney, the Santorum challenge is sufficient to prevent Romney from focusing on Obama, the general election and, perhaps even more importantly, raising money for it.
The well-financed Romney has begun feeling a money pinch, a fact that has caused his campaign to use an internal pollster only sparingly in recent weeks to cut costs.
And he hasn't been able to devote as much time to fundraising as he'd like because he's been forced to spend time on the campaign trail as the race moves from state to state.
What's more, Romney's nomination will leave open the question of whether, without an energised Republican base behind him, he can unseat an incumbent Obama.