U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has won Tuesday's primary elections in the U.S. southern states of Alabama and Mississippi, solidifying his status as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, the leading candidate in the race.
Santorum narrowly won both staunchly conservative states, with Newt Gingrich finishing second and Romney coming in third. The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania told supporters that his campaign was "about ordinary folks doing extraordinary things."
"This is a grassroots campaign for president. Who would've 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 and day out," Santorum said.
He said it was time for conservatives "to pull together" so they can take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November general election.
"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," Santorum said.
Gingrich had hoped to win in at least one of the two states to keep his candidacy viable. But the ex-U.S. House speaker told supporters at a late-night rally in Birmingham, Alabama that he will stay in the race, describing himself as the best candidate to carry on the conservative legacy of former President Ronald Reagan.
"The Reagan tradition of visionary conservatism is based on Proverbs, and the very deep belief that without vision, the people perish. And I believe we need a visionary leader who is prepared to talk about a dramatically better future, with dramatically more jobs, dramatically more energy, and a much safer and stronger America. I think that's the key to winning this fall," he said.
The twin losses were another blow in Romney's efforts to win support from very conservative and religious Republicans who have so far backed Santorum. But despite Tuesdays' results, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, remains in the lead in the delegate count, with nearly 40 percent of the 1,144 votes needed to secure the party's nomination.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll indicates Romney would narrowly defeat U.S. President Barack Obama in a hypothetical election match-up (49 to 47 percent), while Santorum would be finish three points behind (46 to 49 percent) Mr. Obama, if the election were held now.
The other Republican candidate, U.S. Representative Ron Paul, has not won a nominating contest. He had single digit support in Alabama and Mississippi.
The Pacific island state of Hawaii and the U.S. territory of American Samoa are holding caucuses on Tuesday.
The Republican Party will formally nominate its presidential candidate at its convention in Tampa, Florida, in late August.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.