By THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
ELLISVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Spurning calls for him to get out, Newt Gingrich insisted Friday that he'll stay in the race for the Republican presidential nomination even if he loses two Southern primaries next week.
"I think there's a fair chance we'll win," the former House speaker told The Associated Press about the contests Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi. "But I just want to set this to rest once and for all. We're going to Tampa."
Gingrich said he intended to campaign all the way to the Republican National Convention in August, regardless of whether he has won the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
His comments contradicted assertions by a key aide that Gingrich must win both states to remain viable.
Asked if he must win the pair, Gingrich replied: "No."
Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress for two decades, spent most of the week shuttling between Alabama and Mississippi, addressing hundreds at rallies across both states about his proposal to expand U.S. petroleum exploration and drive gas prices down to $2.50 a gallon.
He won a home field primary in Georgia, his only victory among the 10 states that voted earlier this week, and canceled a scheduled trip to Kansas, which holds caucuses Saturday, to maintain his focus on the Deep South. His only other win of the season came in South Carolina in January.
Gingrich has been under pressure from conservatives, including from allies and supporters of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, to quit the race and allow Santorum to challenge front-runner Mitt Romney unencumbered by competition for the votes of the Republican right.
Earlier this week, chief Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said his candidate needed to win every state in the band stretching from South Carolina to Texas.
But Gingrich contradicted his spokesman Friday and said he expects to outlast the socially conservative Santorum, a favorite of evangelical conservatives, as the preferred conservative challenger to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney. Many Republican voters view Romney as too moderate.
Campaigning in Kansas, Santorum added to the chorus by saying the coming days could force Gingrich from the race.
"We feel very confident that we can win Kansas on Saturday and come into Alabama and Mississippi and this race should come down to two people," Santorum told reporters in Topeka.
Gingrich has focused on the South to preserve his financially challenged campaign's resources.
"This has been harder than I thought it would be, been more complicated than I thought it would be," he said. "But I think we're right at the edge of getting our rhythm. And I'm pretty comfortable taking this outside the South. We have to consolidate here because of resources."
Gingrich argued that he trailed only Romney in legally bound delegates, a statement that is based on a number of assumptions that would have to break his way to be true.
His argument is that delegates won in some caucuses don't count because they are not technically bound by party rules. He was specifically talking about Minnesota, Washington, Iowa and Colorado, where local caucuses were just the first step in a multistep process to secure delegates. The AP projects Santorum will pick up 73 delegates in these states, if he is able to maintain the same level of support throughout the entire process.
Gingrich did not win any delegates in these states.
The former House speaker also is counting on delegates that have yet to be awarded in Georgia. The AP count shows Gingrich with 47 of that state's 76 delegates, Romney with 15 and Santorum with three. Eleven delegates have not been awarded because the vote was too close and the state Republican Party says it will not award delegates until results are official.
If Gingrich wins most of the remaining Georgia delegates — and if the caucus states are not counted — Gingrich would have slightly more delegates than Santorum.
In the overall delegate chase, Romney was far ahead of the field with 431, followed by Santorum with 181 and Gingrich with 107. Texas Rep. Ron Paul trails with 46 delegates. If the trend continues, Romney is on track to secure the nomination in June, and at the current rate none of his GOP rivals will reach even half the number of delegates needed.