Santorum calls on conservatives to pull together

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By PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Rick Santorum crowed that Tuesday's primary victories in Alabama and Mississippi were a sign that conservatives had not lost their sway in picking the Republican presidential nominee and urged them to come together behind his scrappy challenge to front-runner Mitt Romney.

Santorum told supporters that results in those two states again showed problems for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who began — and was likely to end — the day leading in delegates and organization. Santorum aides hoped Newt Gingrich's weak showing in what was once seen as his regional stronghold would hasten his exit even as they struggled on how to nudge him to end his effort.

"We did it again," Santorum said to cheers in Lafayette, La., where he was campaigning ahead of the state's nominating contest on March 24.

Santorum planned a late-evening flight with his family to Puerto Rico, where he was set to campaign for two days with an eye on its Sunday primary. His quest to find as many delegates as possible — and as cheaply as he could — sent him after a share of the U.S. territory's 23 delegates.

"We're going to spend two days campaigning in Puerto Rico because we want to make sure everyone knows we are campaigning everywhere there are delegates because we are going to win this nomination before the convention," Santorum said in a subtle jab at Gingrich, whose only two wins so far have been in the South.

Romney is on pace to reach the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination in June. But Santorum has argued that the GOP race is not yet over and his advisers suggest the party could head to its August nominating convention without a candidate with that sum. In that scenario, conservatives may push for defections and deals that could potentially yield a Santorum nomination.

That strategy counts on everything going right for Santorum, but it was expected to be tough. Illinois' March 20 primary could yield Santorum a slice of delegates from rural areas, but Romney was expected to flex his political muscle there for a victory.

Louisiana follows on March 24 and could be Gingrich's final effort to win in the South. Santorum's campaign gets easier if Gingrich bows out before then, embarrassed by losing in states that his aides once declared must-win contests. Yet Gingrich told supporters Tuesday night he wasn't quitting.

"We assume that Newt Gingrich will become less of a factor in terms of vote totals in races after the Louisiana primary, if not before," Santorum strategist John Patrick Yob said in a memo.

Santorum's team has had trouble in how it would publicly push Gingrich to depart.

Santorum communications director Hogan Gidley said "we didn't call on him to get in the race and we won't call for him to get out." But press secretary Alice Stewart, when asked if it was time for Gingrich to go, responded, "Absolutely."

"Being a son of the South, he should be doing much better than this. But these numbers just indicate that Rick Santorum is the conservative in this race," Stewart told CNN.

The muddled message did little to change Gingrich's embarrassment or Romney's continued strength.

"For someone who thinks this race is inevitable, he's spent a whole lot of money against me for being inevitable," Santorum said, crediting his supporters for keeping his ragtag campaign afloat despite massive spending by Romney and his allies on negative ads.

"Ordinary folks from across the country defy the odds day in, day out," he said.

Looking further ahead, Santorum aides say they will compete for delegates — not necessarily victories — in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware on April 24. The big prize that day will be Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, which he served for two terms in the Senate and in the House before that.

North Carolina, Indiana and West Virginia follow on May 8 and are expected to favor Santorum. But he has seen advantages evaporate when Romney and his allies unleash millions in negative ads.

That didn't happen in Mississippi or Alabama, but Santorum's team remembers its collapse in Michigan and Ohio under the weight of an all-in effort from Romney.

"We will compete everywhere," Santorum pledged. "The time is now for conservatives to pull together. The time is now 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."

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