Gingrich fights to stay in the race
Newt Gingrich, running third in the contest to challenge Barack Obama, is counting on primaries in the overwhelmingly conservative states of Alabama and Mississippi to keep alive his already slim chance of winning the nomination.
But polls are showing a tight three-way contest in both deep South states, where front-running Mitt Romney is posting a surprisingly strong showing as is Rick Santorum.
Mr Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, needs victories in both states to meet his goal of resurrecting a candidacy that surpassed Mr Romney for a few brief weeks earlier this year when he pulled an upset victory in South Carolina. More recently, Mr Gingrich also won Georgia, the state he represented in Congress for two decades.
A strong showing for Mr Santorum on Tuesday would, however, allow him to finally establish himself as the main challenger to Mr Romney.
Mr Santorum has nudged Mr Gingrich to step aside, arguing that a head-to-head contest between himself and Mr Romney should "occur sooner rather than later."
Both Mr Santorum and Mr Gingrich are attacking the more centrist Mr Romney from the far right of the political spectrum and have found significant support from the conservative Republican base.
A win for Mr Romney in Alabama could all but guarantee him the nomination. The former Massachusetts governor has built a substantial delegate lead against his rivals but has failed so far to win a state in the Deep South, home to the Republican Party's most conservative and religious voters.
He has amassed his lead in delegates to the party's national nominating convention in August largely because Mr Santorum and Mr Gingrich have split the conservative vote.
Mr Santorum, who has battled to be Mr Romney's chief conservative foe, burnished his standing with a decisive win in caucuses in Kansas on Saturday. He also carried contests last week in Oklahoma and Tennessee.
The weekend contests left Mr Romney with 454 delegates, more than all his rivals combined. Mr Santorum had 217, while Mr Gingrich had 107 and Ron Paul had 47. A candidate must get 1,144 delegates to clinch the Republican presidential nomination.