By THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
PELL CITY, Ala. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich must win next week's Alabama and Mississippi primaries to justify staying in the race, an aide said Wednesday as the campaign abandoned scheduled events in Kansas ahead of that state's Saturday caucuses to stay focused on the South.
"These states we're focusing on, Alabama and Mississippi, are the next two best opportunities on the calendar," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond told reporters in Montgomery, at the outset of a daylong Gingrich campaign trek across Alabama.
Gingrich defiantly rejected calls from supporters of rival Rick Santorum to quit the race so Santorum can go head to head with front-runner Mitt Romney. Gingrich won only his home state of Georgia on Super Tuesday, out of 10 states that voted.
Stuart Roy, an adviser to the Red, White and Blue Fund, a super political action committee supporting Santorum, said Gingrich staying in the race will only be "a hindrance to a conservative alternative to Romney. And Romney simply won't be the conservative alternative to Obama."
Gingrich swatted away the unsolicited advice and said he would push his campaign forward.
"We are staying in this race because I believe it is going to be impossible for a moderate to win the general election," he said, making a now-familiar dig at front-runner Mitt Romney.
Gingrich also argued that Santorum, whom Gingrich is battling to be the preferred conservative, was a creature of the establishment.
"There is a big difference between being a good team member and changing the game," he said. "I am not going to go to Washington to be a good team member. I'm going to Washington to change Washington itself."
The reference was to former Sen. Santorum's explanation that he had voted with party leaders, and against his principles at times, to "take one for the team." Santorum has emerged as a favorite of evangelicals for his well-publicized anti-abortion stance, but Gingrich is trying to undercut that image as a principled conservative.
Gingrich said he was staying in the race because Santorum had yet to cement his status as the field's dominant conservative.
"If I thought he was a slam dunk to beat Romney and to beat Obama I would really consider getting out. I don't," Gingrich said in a radio interview Wednesday.
Santorum also is competing aggressively in Alabama and Mississippi, which vote Tuesday. Santorum was in Mississippi on Wednesday and planned to campaign in Alabama on Thursday. Gingrich scheduled appearances in Mississippi on Thursday, as did Romney.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said Wednesday that Gingrich must win both Southern states to justify his place in the race. Gingrich's only victories have come in South Carolina's primary on Jan. 21, and in Georgia.
Aides have said he must win the broad swath of Southern states from South Carolina to Texas, which holds its primary May 29. But Gingrich, who represented suburban Atlanta in Congress for 20 years, lost to Santorum in Tennessee on Tuesday.
Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley has said Santorum would "do really well in the South. Rick's values match up well with the South. His message matches up well in the South."
Gingrich on Tuesday scrubbed six scheduled campaign appearances in Kansas on Friday and Saturday to continue campaigning in Alabama and Mississippi. He planned to remain in the two states through Tuesday's voting.
Gingrich, whose campaign has risen sharply and faded just as quickly, said Tuesday that both states would spark his latest comeback.
"I believe Alabama has a major role to play in setting the stage for the presidential nomination," he said Wednesday in Montgomery. "And I believe only by nominating a solid conservative who is articulate enough to debate Barack Obama this fall and win the debate can we win the election."
It was unclear to what extent Gingrich would benefit from political action committees that have spent heavily supporting him until now.
Chief among them, a group bankrolled largely by Las Vegas Casino Mogul Sheldon Adelson spent $2.7 million on television and radio advertising ahead of the Super Tuesday contests, including in Ohio, Tennessee and Oklahoma, where Gingrich finished third.