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Republican candidates in three-way race in deep South

By Donna Francavilla

BIRMINGHAM, March 14, 2012 (AFP) -- White House hopefuls were locked in a three-way horse race Tuesday as they jockeyed for dominance in two key southern states, where wins could bust open the Republican presidential battle.

The race was too close to call for US media as the polls shut in the deeply conservative states of Alabama and Mississippi in the state-by-state contests to choose a Republican candidate to take on President Barack Obama in November.

Front-runner Mitt Romney wants to lock up the dragging nomination process but his top rival, ex-senator Rick Santorum who is seeking to cement his status as the best alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, grabbed the early lead in both states.

With 68 percent of precincts reporting in Mississippi, Santorum led with about 33 percent of the vote, former House speaker Newt Gingrich had 31 percent and Romney 30 percent, according to CNN.

In Alabama, Santorum was ahead with 35 percent, followed by Gingrich at 30 and Romney at 28, with 22 percent of the vote counted.

Libertarian congressman Ron Paul of Texas was trailing in both states. The island state of Hawaii -- Obama's birthplace -- was also holding a caucus on Tuesday to choose the party's nominee.

The race has dragged on for weeks, and eyes were on Gingrich with Tuesday's contests seen as must-wins for his flagging campaign.

The flamboyant Gingrich, who in the early days of the campaign was denounced for what candidates called his "grandiose ideas," is fighting to remain viable after winning just two out of the 26 contests held so far. But he faces mounting calls to quit and allow core conservatives to coalesce around Santorum.

Gingrich campaign chief of staff Patrick Millsaps cautioned against a rush to judgment, saying on CNN: "I think we have to wait, I think it will be a long night."

But Santorum's camp was, at least publicly, predicting a good showing, results which could knock Gingrich out of the race in his own southern backyard.

"After tonight, it will be a two man race, Rick and Mitt, and we will clear the field and Rick has a good shot down the road," Santorum spokeswoman Allison Stewart told CNN.

She also said voters were fed up with Romney and his inability to resonate with core conservatives.

"Rick Santorum is the candidate in this race that is the contrast to Barack Obama. That's what people are beginning to recognize," Stewart added.

Earlier, 45-year-old insurance executive Troy Wolkow, his wife Mary, 46, and his 19-year-old daughter Nicole all said they had opted for Gingrich.

"I think he's the best candidate. His knowledge, his grasp of the issues and he's somebody that inspires me. If he becomes president, I see him as the most capable of being a leader," Troy Wolkow said.

Physical therapist Lori Robertson, 47, voting in Birmingham, Alabama, said she supported Romney in part because "he has a stronger chance to beat Barack Obama."

Roy Watkins, 65, chief executive at Cebert Pharmaceuticals, said he chose devout Catholic Santorum. "The values that he has represent me," he told AFP.

Gingrich, speaking to Fox News earlier Tuesday, dismissed Romney as the candidate of corporate fat cats and touted his plan to bring down the price of gas to $2.50 from around $4 currently.

"Barack Obama is responsible for the high price of gasoline. He has followed a deliberately anti-American energy policy," Gingrich said, tapping into anger about high prices at the pump which are hurting Obama's popularity.

Santorum has also trained his sights on Romney, saying the party needs a standard bearer in the mold of late conservative icon president Ronald Reagan.

Romney for his part has argued that he alone has the heft to beat Obama.

"It's essential that we have in Washington a president who understands how the free economy works... how free people pursuing their own dreams make a stronger nation. I've had that experience," he said at a Tuesday rally.

Romney is already ahead in the all-important delegate count, having about 40 percent of the 1,144 needed to win the sweepstakes and be crowned the party's presidential nominee at its convention in Tampa in August.


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