Romney, Gingrich and Santorum Battle in South

Romney, rivals fight for delegates in the Deep South.

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The next chapter in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination saga is set to be written in a pair of southern states on Tuesday, as voters in Alabama and Mississippi cast their primary ballots. Voters in Hawaii and American Samoa will also caucus in lesser-watched contests.

Polls show three candidates in striking distance of winning both Alabama and Mississippi – former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Each candidate garners a nearly equal portion of support, with Texas Rep. Ron Paul registering in the single digits, according to the most recent surveys by Public Policy Polling.

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The results of the Deep South contests hold significance both in the perception of the race – whether Romney can finally score a victory with the culturally conservative electorate – and in the day to day reality of delegate counts. Alabama has 50 delegates in the offing, Mississippi has 40. Both will be allocated proportionally, so the tight finish likely means Romney, Gingrich and Santorum will split the pot.

Romney, the race's front-runner, currently has 455 of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination, according to a tally by Real Clear Politics. Santorum has 199 delegates, Gingrich 117 and Paul 64, according to the count.

More than adding to his delegate count, Romney desperately hopes to land the knockout punch that seals the race in his favor. In recent days, he's rolled out countless endorsements from officials in both states in hopes of currying favor with demographics he's struggled with in other states and who make up a large portion of the voters heading to the polls on Tuesday – evangelical Christians and strong cultural conservatives.

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Romney's chances for notching a southern victory are probably boosted more from his rivals' near-even split among conservative voters than anything else. But he also benefits from strong political advertising both by his own campaign and the Super PAC spending on his behalf and his formidable ground game in the states.

Santorum and Gingrich have been running hard on the ground in Alabama and Mississippi, each trying to edge out the other and claim the "most conservative" mantle in the race. Gingrich won his home state of Georgia last week by a large margin and is hoping to transfer that success to the similarly-profiled states. Santorum hopes to build on his wins in Tennessee, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

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The path for either man securing enough delegates to topple Romney is difficult, but if both remain in the race it's likely impossible. And each side hopes the other is forced out of the race with a poor showing on Tuesday, though each has claimed he will stay in the hunt for the nomination until the party convention in Tampa at the end of the summer.

On Saturday, voters in Missouri will caucus while Puerto Rico holds its primary on Sunday. But the next big match-up comes on March 20 in Illinois, with 69 delegates up for grabs. 

Email: rmetzler@usnews.com

Twitter: @rebekahmetzler