The main Republican presidential contenders were last night locked in tight three-way races in primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, where defeat in either could doom the candidacy of the former Speaker Newt Gingrich, setting up a one-on-one contest between front runner Mitt Romney and social conservative Rick Santorum.
Exit polls pointed to a narrow Romney victory in Mississippi and success for Mr Santorum in Alabama, while early real vote returns in both put the former Pennsylvania senator fractionally ahead. Essentially, though, all three were clustered around 30 per cent in both states and two hours after polls closed, no TV network was daring to predict the outcome in either. Nonetheless a win in even one would be a huge boost for Mr Romney, destroying the conventional wisdom that a Mormon Yankee, a former governor of liberal Massachusetts, could not carry a southern conservative state, and sealing his position as overwhelming favourite to be crowned at August's nominating convention in Tampa, Florida.
At stake were 47 convention delegates in Alabama and 37 in Mississippi, as well as a combined 25 in Hawaii and American Samoa, which were holding caucuses. A failure to register a win in the deep south would pile pressure on Mr Gingrich, who has staked all on a so-called 'Southern strategy'.