Rick Santorum edged out Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to sweep primary contests in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday, in the latest, crucial round in the race for the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama. Santorum held a narrow lead in the Mississippi primary.

Mr. Santorum’s victories establish him as the chief alternative from the right to front-runner Mr. Romney, who has failed to win the trust of the conservative Republican base. Mr. Romney had been hoping to make a breakthrough in the Deep South to show he could muster the support of evangelical Christian voters.

Mr. Gingrich, who has been lagging nationally, needed a win to show he remains a viable candidate.

The fourth candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, was not competing actively in the two contests and lagged far behind in single digits.

“We’re on our way to victory tonight; we’re on our way to victory in this election,” Mr. Santorum exulted before cheering supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, which holds its primary March 24.

In Alabama, with 74 per cent of the precincts counted, Mr. Santorum was pulling 35 per cent of the vote, Mr. Gingrich had 30 per cent and Mr. Romney 28 per cent.

Returns from 91 per cent of Mississippi’s precincts showed Mr. Santorum with 33 per cent, Mr. Gingrich 31 per cent and Mr. Romney 30 per cent.

Mr. Romney still holds a commanding lead in delegates to the national convention in Tampa, Florida, in August. The former Massachusetts governor is much better funded and has a superior campaign organization. What’s more, 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.

Slower still to fall in behind Mr. Romney have been voters in the Deep South, where he has yet to win a primary. He won in Virginia, where Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot, and in Florida, where he carried counties with many transplanted retirees from northern states but lost those regions in northern Florida most culturally aligned with the old South.

A win in either Mississippi or Alabama would have eased concerns that the Harvard-educated Mormon cannot win over the party’s most conservative and evangelical Christian voters, who play an outsized role in both Alabama and Mississippi. In both states, 80 percent or more of voters leaving their polling places said they were born again Christians or evangelical.

The numbers spelled good news for Mr. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator and deeply conservative Catholic who has captured the hearts of his party’s base.

“People of Mississippi and Alabama want a conservative,” Santorum told reporters in Biloxi, Mississippi, before the results were tallied. pressing his argument that Gingrich should consider stepping aside. “If they want a conservative nominee for sure, they can do that by lining up behind us and making this race clearly a two-person race outside of the South.”

While Gingrich insists he plans to remain in the race until the Republican National Convention, his campaign’s survival essentially rested on winning both of Tuesday’s contests. The former speaker of the House of Representatives has pursued an all—Southern strategy, but he has won only South Carolina and Georgia, the state he represented in Congress for 20 years.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, worked to persuade lukewarm Republican voters that he is the most electable candidate.

“I’m the one guy in this race who can beat Barack Obama,” he told 400 people gathered to hear him speak in Missouri, which holds its caucuses on Saturday.

There were 107 Republican National Convention delegates at stake on Tuesday- 47 in Alabama, 37 in Mississippi, 17 in Hawaii, where caucuses were scheduled, and six more in caucuses in American Samoa.

The three candidates each have 10 delegates in Mississippi, with seven left to be allocated. In Alabama, Santorum has 11 delegates while Gingrich has seven and Romney has six. Twenty-three delegates remain in Alabama.

Romney leads the overall race for delegates with 470, followed by Santorum with 238 and Gingrich with 124. Paul trails with 47. It will take 1,144 delegates to win the Republican nomination at the Republican National Convention.

The showdown votes occurred as new polling showed a steep drop in Obama’s approval ratings, a decline that coincides with rapidly climbing gasoline prices as a result of renewed turbulence in the Middle East. The political turmoil across the Mideast and North Africa has been exacerbated by fears that Israel is preparing a military attack on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 per cent of those surveyed approve the way the president is handling his job, and 50 per cent disapprove. A New York Times/CBS poll found 41 per cent approval, and 47 per cent disapproval.

Leavening those numbers, the Gallup daily tracking poll had Obama’s approval rating at 47 percent. It showed U.S. economic confidence at a four-year high.

On Tuesday, the president, who is unopposed for the Democratic nomination, won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO labor federation.

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