Republican race: Rick Santorum wins key southern primaries

RICK Santorum won crucial primaries in Alabama and Mississippi in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, dealing a devastating blow to Newt Gingrich and securing his position as the chief conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.

The results were a setback for Mr Romney, who had hoped to show he could muster the support of evangelical Christian voters in America’s Deep South in his quest to be his party’s choice to challenge President Barack Obama in November’s election.

Mr Romney finished third in both southern states, but he salvaged a win in the Hawaii caucuses and won the support of all nine delegates at Republican caucuses in American Samoa.

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The results were especially bad news for Mr Gingrich, who desperately needed a win to show he remains a viable candidate.

“We did it again,” Mr Santorum told cheering supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, which holds its primary on March 24.

He added “Now is the time for conservatives to pull together” in an effort to defeat Mr Romney. Mr Gingrich said he had no plans to quit the race.

In Alabama, with 98 per cent of the precincts counted, Mr Santorum had 35 per cent of the vote, while Mr Gingrich and Mr Romney each had 29 per cent.

Returns from 99 per cent of Mississippi’s precincts showed Mr Santorum with 33 per cent, Mr Gingrich 31 per cent and Mr Romney 30 per cent.

The fourth candidate, Texas Representative Ron Paul, did not compete actively in the two contests and lagged far behind in single digits.

In Hawaii, with 84 per cent of the precincts reporting, Mr Romney led with 45 per cent, followed by Mr Santorum with 25 per cent and Mr Paul with 19 per cent.

Mr Romney still holds a commanding lead in delegates to the convention in Tampa, Florida, in August. The former Massachusetts governor is much better funded and has a superior campaign organisation. In addition, he carries the backing of the party establishment. But the conservative base distrusts his one-time moderate views on important social issues like abortion and gay rights.