Santorum sweeps Missi, Alabama in blow to Mitt

Washington: Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum today took home Alabama and Missisippi in another crucial round of primaries to pick Barack Obama`s contender, dealing a blow to front-runner Mitt Romney`s hopes of making a mark in southern America`s Conservative bastions.

With more than three-fourths of the votes counted, Santorum had polled 35 per cent of the total votes in Alabama, while Newt Gingrich had got 30 per cent, and Romney 28 per cent.

In neighbouring Mississippi, it was a close three-way fight, and with more than 95 per cent of the votes counted, Santorum had polled 33 per cent, followed by Gingrich at 30 per cent and Romney 28 per cent.

"We did it again," Santorum said in his victory speech in Louisiana, another deeply conservative state which holds a March 24 primary.

The defeat was a setback to Romney and showed that he was still struggling to win over the Conservatives, despite being much better funded and having superior campaign organisation.

"For someone who thinks this race is inevitable, he`s spending a whole lot of money against me for being inevitable," Santorum said in his remarks, apparently targeted towards Romney.

"This is a grassroots campaign for President. Who would have ever thought in the age of media that we have in this country today that ordinary folks from across this country can defy the odds day in, day out?" he asked. "That`s what America`s always been about," he said.

Santorum, a devout Catholic, whose conservative message resonates with evangelical voters, was expected to fare well in the southern contests.

But the results left the third contender Newt Gingrich struggling for survival in the race to pick the Republican who will challenge Obama in the presidential vote.

Gingrich, who had stayed out of most of the Super Tuesday states and the preceding primaries in Arizona and Michigan to focus on a "southern strategy", is left with only two victories — from his home state of Georgia and neighbouring South Carolina.

"Mr Santorum`s victory in Alabama was driven by support among voters who said they were `very conservative` and from evangelical Christians, who made up nearly 8 in 10 voters, according to exit poll returns," The New York Times said.

Santorum would now hope the results would sideline Gingrich, and place him as the main contender for Romney who enjoys the virtual backing of the Republican establishment.

Santorum and Gingrich had been dividing the Conservative votes, and the former asked such voters to rally behind him now.

"The time is now for conservatives to pull together. The time is now to make sure, to make sure that we have the best chance to win this election — and the best chance to win this election is to nominate a conservative to go up against Barack Obama who can take him on on every issue," he said.

The New York Times said Romney had stumbled among voters in Alabama who expressed scepticism about his commitment to their conservative values — nearly half of those who turned out to vote said he was not conservative enough.

"Win bolsters former Pennsylvania Senator`s case that he is the favourite of conservatives in all corners of country, and should be sole challenger to front-runner Mitt Romney," The Washington Post said.

The former Pennsylvania Senator, Santorum, attacked the Obama administration for what he called were his "extreme" environmental policies, that had resulted in moratoriums and delays in several places.

"We`re seeing gas prices at what are projected to be historic highs, and yet this president almost put this whole region out of business, because of the extreme environmental policies of this administration," he said.