Rick Santorum wins crucial primaries in the deep south

 

Rick Santorum scored an upset double primary triumph in the deep south last night, guaranteeing that the Republican presidential race will drag on for weeks if not months yet. His victories in Alabama and Mississippi deliver a fresh jolt to the limping front runner Mitt Romney, and raise pressure on Newt Gingrich, his rival for the conservative vote, to drop out and thus set up a one-on-one Santorum-Romney battle for the Republican nomination to face president Obama in the autumn.

In Alabama Mr Santorum beat out Mr Gingrich and Mr Romney with 35 per cent of the vote. In Mississippi, where the former Massachusetts governor had quiet hopes of winning, his margin was narrower, as he edged out Mr Gingrich by a 33-31 margin, with Mr Romney close behind on 30 per cent. The libertarian candidate Ron Paul, who did not seriously contest either state, finished in mid-single figures in both.

Even one win on the night would have been a huge psychological boost for Mr Romney, upending the conventional wisdom that a Mormon Yankee, a former governor of liberal Massachusetts, could not carry a southern state, and sealing his position as overwhelming favourite to be crowned at August’s nominating convention in Tampa, Florida.

In the event he managed only third place in both Mississippi and Alabama, though he was expected to win in Hawaii, which along with American Samoa was holding its presidential caucuses yesterday. Despite the twin defeats, he is still favourite for the nomination, with more delegates than his rivals combined.

But the latest setbacks guarantee that the race will continue through the spring and early summer, to the dismay of Republican elders yearning for the party to close ranks for the real job ahead – unseating Mr Obama and

In both southern states, conservatives won around 70 per cent of the vote, underlining the scepticism of a crucial Republican constituency towards Mr Romney. Once again, the results only confirm that he is the party’s least convincing front runner in any recent election. His claim this week that Mr Santorum was at the “desperate end”of his campaign this morning rings hollower than ever. In the urban centres where Mr Romney should have done well, turnout was extremely low, a sign of the small enthusiasm he generates among party activists.

 Last night Mr Gingrich, despite his two second place finishes in his native south, was defiant in his refusal to leave the race. “It’s clear when the primaries are over, no-one will have won,” he said, arguing that it would be for the convention in Tampa to choose the eventual nominee. But he may face powerful pressure from conservative leaders to drop out, allowing Tea Party and evangelical voters to unite behind Mr Santorum.   

 At stake yesterday were 47 convention delegates in Alabama and 37 in Mississippi, as well as a combined 25 in Hawaii and American Samoa. With even those modest prizes divided on a proportional basis, last night was never going to be numerically decisive in the chase for the nomination. But albeit still small, the chances have increased that no candidate will arrive in Tampa with the 1,144 delegates needed to win.  At the very least a long war of attrition lies ahead.

 Mr Santorum’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi are a massive boost. He has now won 10 states, amassing some 250 delegates. But thanks to the proportional allocation of delegates now used in many states, he will have barely chipped into Mr Romney’s who had 459 delegates going into yesterday’s primaries. Mr Gingrich trails with 130 or so, but could emerge as a kingmaker at the convention.

 In the last few days, Mr Romney sensed he had a chance in at least one of the two southern states, boosting his television ad spending, and making more stump appearances. But in a sign the battle will continue for weeks or months yet, he was already campaigning on Tuesday in Illinois, whose primary next Tuesday is shaping up as a yet another close contest between himself and Mr Santorum.

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