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CNN predicts Rick Santorum wins Alabama primary

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Posted at 10:20 PM, Mar 13, 2012
and last updated 2012-03-13 22:20:44-04

By John Helton
Paul Steinhauser and Jason Hanna

(CNN) -- Rick Santorum, coming off a big win in Kansas, took an early lead in Tuesday's Alabama primary, looking to beat Newt Gingrich on his Southern home turf and tout himself as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

Primary polls in Alabama and Mississippi closed at 7 p.m. (8 p.m. ET).

Results in Alabama were trickling in, with Santorum leading with 33%, followed by Romney at 30% and Gingrich, 29%, according to results on the Alabama Secretary of State website. Ron Paul had 6%.

Gingrich, the former House speaker, was under the most pressure to take both states. He has won contests in South Carolina and Georgia, which he represented in Congress for two decades, but has finished third or worse in most contests outside the region.

Patrick Millsaps, Gingrich chief of staff, said, "The polls have shown this is a three-way race. We're not even at the halfway mark of this campaign season ... I think we will do well in the South, will pick up delegates no matter where we are."

A win down South for Romney would finally give him a victory in a region dominated by social conservatives, who have been hesitant to support his candidacy.

Santorum press secretary Alice Stewart said after Tuesday night it will be a two-man race: Santorum and Romney. "We're in good shape. They have been pushing around this fuzzy math" on the delegate count, she said of the Romney camp.

Forty-seven delegates were up for grabs in Alabama, with 37 at stake in Mississippi, all being divided proportionally. Both states held open primaries, which meant Republicans, independent voters and Democrats could cast ballots in the GOP contests.

Hawaii and American Samoa also hold caucuses Tuesday, with 17 delegates to be allocated in Hawaii and nine in American Samoa.

Gingrich has campaigned intensively in Alabama and Mississippi over the last week.

"You would think he was running for governor here because of his campaigning, going to restaurants, going to church on Sunday. He is showing up everywhere," Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said on CNN's "Starting Point" Tuesday.

Armistead echoed others' positions that Gingrich has a lot riding on the outcome.

"He's got to do extremely well in Alabama and Mississippi just to stay in the race," he said.

Romney downplayed expectations. Speaking to reporters in Missouri, where he was campaigning ahead of this month's caucuses there, he said he expected to take about a third of the 84 delegates up for grabs in Alabama and Mississippi.

"If that's the case, why, that inches us closer to that magic number," Romney said.

Speaking later in Liberty, Missouri, Romney said he was the only candidate who could defeat Obama. "We've got work to do. I want your vote because I love America and I'm going to get it fixed."

Romney's campaign has been holding up its large lead in delegates as a reason for Gingrich and Santorum to get out of the race.

Going into Tuesday, Romney was far short of the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination -- he held a 459-203 lead over Santorum, with Gingrich at 118 and Paul at 66, according to a CNN delegate estimate.

A leading Republican strategist said Romney could be the real winner on Tuesday night.

"I continue to think this is fundamentally about a delegate fight, so I'm reluctant to talk about momentum as an important story. But I do think there is a momentum story that could emerge after Alabama and Mississippi if Romney overperforms," said Gentry Collins, a former political director for the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association.

Even if he doesn't win either Alabama or Mississippi, Romney will pick up delegates in both. Add to that a bunch of likely delegates in more moderate Hawaii, and Romney will probably expand his lead.

Romney picked up the endorsement of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant last week. And while Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said he had voted for Santorum, his office later issued a statement after his vote was interpreted as an endorsement saying, "Gov. Bentley views Rick Santorum as the most conservative candidate in the Republican presidential primary. Gov. Bentley has chosen not to publicly endorse a candidate. He believes a vote is a personal decision that should be based on a voter's values and principles, not on someone else's opinion."

Romney has been trying out his Southern charm, saying last week on the campaign trail in Mississippi that he was "an unofficial Southerner" and joking that "I am learning to say 'y'all' and 'I like grits,' and things. Strange things are happening to me."

Romney's campaign and a pro-Romney super PAC have combined to spend nearly $2 million to run TV commercials in the two states. Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy also joined him on the campaign trail on Monday.

"I was able to avoid politics for 53 years and somebody said, 'Why in the world would you get into it now?' and the answer is it's too important. Because I love this country," said Foxworthy, campaigning with Romney in Alabama.

Gingrich threw a new wrinkle into the slow-Romney movement, suggesting he and Santorum team up to stop the former Massachusetts governor.

"There's a certain advantage I think right now in having both of us tag-team Romney, because neither one of us by ourselves can raise the money to match Romney," Gingrich said on the "Rick and Bubba" radio show in Birmingham.

But Santorum has suggested he wants Gingrich out of the race so the anti-Romney movement is no longer split between him and Gingrich.

Paul hasn't campaigned over the past week in either Alabama or Mississippi and doesn't appear to be much of a factor in either state.

CNN's Rachel Streitfeld and Chris Welch contributed to this report.

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