WASHINGTON (AP) - A resurgent Rick Santorum swept primaries in Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday night, upending the race for the Republican presidential nomination as he sought to push Newt Gingrich toward the sidelines.
Mitt Romney was running third in both states.
"We did it again," Santorum told cheering supporters in Lafayette, La. He said it was time for conservatives to unite in an effort to defeat Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is the faraway leader in the competition for Republican National Convention delegates.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks at his primary night watch party in Lafayette, La., Tuesday.
Romney bristled in the hours before the votes were counted, saying Santorum was "at the desperate end of his campaign."
But it was Gingrich with the most to lose as he struggled for political survival in a part of the country he hoped would fuel one more comeback in the unpredictable race to pick an opponent to President Barack Obama.
He congratulated Santorum on his victories, and poked at Romney. "If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner," he said in Birmingham, Ala.
In Alabama, with 76 percent of the precincts counted, Santorum was pulling 35 percent of the vote, Gingrich had 30 percent and Romney 28 percent.
Returns from 92 percent of Mississippi's precincts showed Santorum with 33 percent, Gingrich 31 percent and Romney 30.
Rep. Ron Paul, the fourth contender, made little effort in the states on the day's ballot.
There were 107 Republican National Convention delegates at stake on Tuesday, 47 in Alabama, 37 in Mississippi, 17 in Hawaii caucuses and six more in caucuses in American Samoa.
Evangelicals played an outsized role in both primary states, underscoring the challenge to Romney. In Mississippi and Alabama, 80 percent or more of voters leaving their polling places said they were born again Christians or evangelical.
Those voters have been reluctant to rally to Romney's side in the primaries and caucuses to date. Among them, Santorum bested Romney by 9 points in Alabama and 4 points in Mississippi.
More broadly, the exit polls showed a primary electorate that was conservative, determinedly Republican and profoundly unhappy about the government.
In Mississippi, more than eight in 10 voters said they were dissatisfied or angry with the federal government, while in Alabama, 80 percent said they would definitely vote for the Republican candidate against Obama next fall, no matter who he is.
While Alabama and Mississippi are among the most conservative states in the country and share a long border, the exit polls showed significant differences in the voters' reaction to the candidates.
In Mississippi, Romney had the support of 30 percent of primary voters who earn under $50,000 a year, compared with 26 percent in Alabama. He drew the backing of 33 percent of Mississippi primary voters with no college education, compared with 27 percent in Alabama.
Only about half of all voters in each state said they work fulltime for pay, and they, too, voted differently one state from the other.
Santorum outpolled Romney, 39 percent to 23 percent among that group in Alabama. The two men tied among that group in Mississippi.
As has been true in earlier primaries, the economy was the most important issue to voters, and an ability to defeat Obama the most important quality when it came time to pick a candidate.