Rick Santorum scored victories in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries on Tuesday, depriving Mitt Romney of a signature win in a conservative stronghold and raising fresh doubts about the viability of Newt Gingrich's campaign.
The former Pennsylvania senator made his case for being the lone, serious Republican challenger to Romney for the remainder of the primary by besting Gingrich in states the former speaker's campaign had previously said were essential to its long-term viability.
However, there were no signs that this race would lose another candidate anytime soon.
“We did it again,” Santorum said to wild applause from supporters in Louisiana in response to projections by NBC News that he would win both Mississippi and Alabama. Romney had hoped to score a victory in Mississippi, proving his ability to win a state that composes part of the heart of the modern GOP. But he appeared to be heading to a third-place finish in both contests, failing to even surpass Gingrich.
A former governor of Massachusetts, Romney acknowledged these contests were an “away game” for a figure like him, marking an effort to set low expectations for how he might finish in the contests.
The Romney campaign was able to pick up delegates in both states, contributing to its march to collect the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination.
"I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight," Romney said in a written statement. "With the delegates won tonight, we are even closer to the nomination."
His campaign accrued additional delegates in Hawaii. NBC News declared Romney as projected winner of Hawaii's caucuses early Wednesday. He took about 45 percent of the votes in the state. Santorum earned about 25 percent.
The Associated Press also reported that Romney picked up all six delegates from American Samoa, plus the endorsement of three members of the Republican National Committee.
A total of 107 delegates were up for grabs between Mississippi, Alabama and Hawaii on Tuesday.
An outright victory for Romney would have helped close the door on the primary campaign and begin to pivot to the general election, even if it would have come because of a split in the conservative vote.
'Misrepresenting the truth'
Romney has sought to project an air of inevitability surrounding his campaign nonetheless.
"Sen. Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign and is trying in some way to boost his prospects and, frankly, misrepresenting the truth is not a good way of doing that," Romney said Tuesday night on CNN.
But Santorum has shown little interest in backing down.
“For someone who thinks this race is inevitable, he spent a while lot of money against me for being inevitable,” Santorum said, making reference to the money spent by a pro-Romney super PAC in the two states. (A super PAC also spent on Santorum’s behalf, but not nearly to the extent of Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney group.)
The ex-senator has begun openly expressing his desire for the Republican campaign to narrow into a one-on-one showdown between him and Romney. Santorum also sharpened his attacks against Romney, going after Romney's record in the private sector -- questions about which, just two months ago, Santorum had effectively declared off-limits.
But Santorum still faces a challenge in finding a way to ease Gingrich from the race. Exit poll data in Mississippi found that Santorum won the most conservative voters on Tuesday, while "somewhat conservative" voters split three ways. Similar patterns held true in Alabama. Santorum has argued that, with Gingrich out of the race, he would stand to collect many of the former speaker's voters, and be able to beat Romney.
Gingrich has been defiant, vowing to fight all the way to the Republican National Convention this summer in Tampa, where his campaign argues he could emerge as the nominee if Romney fails to secure a majority of delegates.
"I emphasize going to Tampa because one of the things tonight proves is that the elite media's effort to prove that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed," Gingrich said in Birmingham. "If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, then you're not much of a front-runner."
Early exit poll data had raised the Romney campaign's optimism in Mississippi as the possible beneficiary of a split vote between Santorum and Gingrich, and a slightly better-than-expected performance among key blocs such as evangelical or born-again Christians, as well as less educated or less moneyed voters.
His campaign stressed the fact that few political observers had expected Romney to win either contest, but aside from some early strongholds this primary cycle Romney has yet to score the kind of signature win needed to demonstrate that core GOP conservatives have acceded to his nomination.
His campaign still has the inside track to win the delegate battle, though that would threaten a prolonged and costly fight for the nomination at a time when many Republicans have worried about the toll this nominating cycle has taken on the party’s brand.
The race now turns to a primary this weekend in Puerto Rico – to which both Romney and Santorum will travel – and a caucus in Missouri that will determine the state’s allocation of delegates (unlike an earlier, nonbinding primary, which Santorum won).
After Puerto Rico, the next primary is slated for Tuesday in Illinois, where Romney has already blanketed the airwaves. Gingrich’s public schedule also calls for stops in Illinois later this week, though Santorum said Tuesday he considers it an uphill battle to win the popular vote in that state.