Newt Gingrich fights to stay in the Republican presidential race on Tuesday with his hopes pinned on winning primaries in the conservative southern states of Alabama and Mississippi.
As frontrunner Mitt Romney racks up more delegates on his expected long march to the 2012 nomination, rivals Gingrich and Rick Santorum have been slugging it out in a side duel to become his sole conservative challenger.
Both men cling to the hope the other may be forced out, allowing a head-to-head contest with Romney. But each week that passes the favorite moves closer to the magic 1,144 delegates needed to seal the nomination.
The status of the battle to take on President Barack Obama in November depends on who you ask: Romney says it’s already over, Santorum says it’s now a two-horse race, while Gingrich says wait for Mississippi and Alabama.
“Mathematically, this thing is about over, but emotionally it’s not,” senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, crediting Santorum for his recent surge and Gingrich for coming “back from the dead two or three times.”
“I think everybody believes, if I could just get a one-on-one with Romney, I could win this thing,” the senator told ABC’s “This Week” program, as polling showed tight three-way votes looming in the south.
“If Romney does well, wins either Mississippi or Alabama and wins Illinois (later in March), then I think it’s virtually impossible for this thing to continue much beyond early May,” Graham said.
The stakes couldn’t be higher on Tuesday for Gingrich, who has only won two of 26 voting contests so far and who gave up on Kansas — which Santorum took handily at the weekend — to focus on sweeping both big southern primaries.
“I think we’ll win both. We are campaigning very aggressively on both states,” Gingrich told “Fox News Sunday.”
Romney has won 17 of 26 state or territory votes so far, compared to seven wins for Santorum — eight if you include a straw poll in Missouri — two for Gingrich, and none for Texas congressman Ron Paul.
These victories have given Romney almost 40 percent of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination. He has 453 delegates, Santorum 199 and Gingrich 117, according to authoritative aggregator RealClearPolitics.
This lead means Romney’s competitors must win some 70-75 percent of the remaining delegates — which are handed out proportionally by district in many states — in order to snatch the nomination.
“Uniting the opposition to Romney in a single candidate is the only chance, or the best chance, of seeing this process continue for a while,” said Charles Franklin, a professor at Marquette University Law School.
“With Gingrich, there is also the question of when does dogged determination become a pointless crusade. Surely that point is coming pretty soon,” Franklin, the co-founder of pollster.com, told AFP.
Santorum’s super PAC — a campaign group that can receive unlimited funds in support of the candidate — issued a press release last week calling on the former House speaker to quit.
“With Gingrich exiting the race, it would be a true head-to-head race and conservatives would be able to make a choice between a consistent conservative in Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney,” the statement said.
Despite a bulging war-chest and a vast campaign team, Romney failed to seal the deal on Super Tuesday as doubts linger among key Republican voting groups about the man who would become the first Mormon presidential nominee.
Romney, who celebrates his 65th birthday on Monday, has portrayed himself as the underdog in Alabama and Mississippi, Bible Belt states where a majority of primary voters describe themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians.
Despite well-documented marital infidelities, Gingrich won convincingly in South Carolina and Georgia — albeit his home state — and the most recent polls showed him edging ahead in Tuesday’s contests.
In Alabama, a Rasmussen survey Friday showed Gingrich leading with 30 percent, ahead of Santorum with 29 percent and Romney with 28 percent. A poll in Mississippi by American Research Group showed Gingrich in the lead at 35 percent, ahead of Romney at 31 percent and Santorum at 20 percent.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, Gingrich has vowed to stay in the race all the way to the Republican Party convention at the end of August which will crown the eventual nominee.