Newt Gingrich's poor showing in every Super Tuesday state except Georgia gives him an increasingly narrow path to win the nomination, one that now depends on the South.
The Gingrich campaign on Wednesday canceled plans to visit Kansas, instead zeroing in on Mississippi and Alabama, which hold primaries next week. The campaign is also looking ahead to Louisiana later this month and Texas after that, putting everything on the line in the South.
"Everything between Spartanburg (S.C.), all the way to Texas. Those all need to go for Gingrich," said campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond.
The fallout from Super Tuesday left Gingrich with little choice. Aside from the unsurprising victory in Georgia, which he represented in Congress for 20 years, he had little to cheer about.
He finished far behind Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the other nine states and trailed Ron Paul for fourth place in five of the races. Santorum's victories in Tennessee and Oklahoma _ two states with GOP voters similar to Georgia's _ raised doubts about Gingrich's appeal to Southern conservatives.
Santorum's campaign was quick to capitalize on his victories Tuesday night.
"And here we are in Oklahoma and Tennessee that we won fairly big. So I think we're going to do really well in the South," said Hogan Gidley, a Santorum spokesman. "Rick's values match up well with the South. His message matches up well in the South."
In Georgia, exit polls showed strong support from evangelical voters and tea party conservatives helped fuel Gingrich's victory. About 7 in 10 Georgia voters identified themselves as conservative, according to the data, and 50 percent of them voted for Gingrich. That's a contrast from exit polls in Oklahoma and Tennessee that showed Christian conservatives heavily favored Santorum.
The way these groups vote will determine the fate of the contests next week in Alabama and Mississippi.
"Santorum presents a direct challenge to the electoral coalition Gingrich put together in Georgia," said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist. "If Santorum wins either of these states, he destroys the rationale for Gingrich's candidacy."
If Santorum were to eke out a victory in either state, the cries for Gingrich to drop out of the race would only grow louder.
"It's almost like Newt Gingrich losing Georgia. It's a death knell," Joel McElhannon, a Republican strategist in Georgia who isn't aligned with any campaign, said of the prospect of Gingrich failing to win in the two Southern states. "There's no legitimate argument for him to stay in. That doesn't mean he won't stay in. He's Newt Gingrich."
Even a poor showing next week may not force Gingrich out of the race. Much could depend on whether billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has contributed millions to a political action committee backing Gingrich, writes yet another check.
In a radio interview Wednesday, Gingrich dismissed the idea of dropping out to help Santorum defeat Romney. "If I thought he was a slam dunk to beat Romney and to beat Obama, I would really consider getting out. I don't," he said.
At a stop Wednesday in Montgomery, Ala., Gingrich eagerly brought up his victory next door as he sought to remind voters of his frequent visits to Alabama during his two decades in Congress.
"Newt's in pretty good shape in Alabama. He really connects with people in Alabama because he's a Southerner and he talks our lingo, and because he's fearless about saying what he thinks," said Jack Campbell, a GOP political consultant in Montgomery who isn't aligned with any campaign. "People like that he's a breath of fresh air. You never know with some of the other candidates."
Gingrich's message resonated with some voters. Tim Adamson, a 55-year-old retired Alabama corrections officer, said he didn't believe a "media-anointed front-runner" would win the election and said Gingrich had more appeal in the South than Romney and other rivals.
"We're a lot more conservative down here," Adamson said.
The irony that the thrice-married Gingrich's political fate hinges on deeply conservative Southern supporters isn't lost on the voters. Yet some have grown tired of hearing about the candidate's two divorces and acknowledged marital infidelity.
"I know he has a past," said Tammara Butler, who cast her ballot for Gingrich in the Georgia primary. "But who amongst us doesn't?"
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Associated Press writers Andy Brownfield in Montgomery, Ala.; Steve Peoples in Steubenville, Ohio; and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed to this report.
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