Santorum: Romney can't close deal with Republicans
And Newt Gingrich calls him the weakest GOP front-runner since 1920.
By John McCormick and Hans Nichols, Bloomberg
Mitt Romney's Republican presidential rivals are boosting attacks ahead of Southern primaries this week that could start to winnow the field.
The heightened criticism precedes primary voting Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi. The contests are important for Newt Gingrich as he tries to remain a viable candidate and for Rick Santorum as he works to prove he is building momentum after a weekend win in Kansas.
Both men criticized Romney, the front-runner in polls and accumulation of delegates needed for their party's nomination, during television and campaign trail appearances yesterday.
"He can't close the deal," Santorum said of Romney on NBC's "Meet the Press" program.
Gingrich, 68, a former U.S. House speaker, called Romney the weakest Republican front-runner since 1920 during an interview on "Fox News Sunday."
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and private-equity executive, collected more delegates in weekend caucuses than either Santorum or Gingrich. Asked about Santorum's comment during an interview today at a diner in Mobile, Alabama, Romney told Fox News Channel: "We're closing the deal, state by state, delegate by delegate."
"We're pretty pleased with the progress we're making," he said.
"Mathematically, this thing is about over, but emotionally, it's not," Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said yesterday on ABC's "This Week" program. "It's Romney's to lose and, quite frankly, every time he had his back against the wall, he's performed and I like his chances."
Romney, 65, has secured 454 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, including endorsements from Republican Party leaders who automatically attend and can vote for anyone, compared with 217 for Santorum and 107 for Gingrich, according to Associated Press estimates. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, another Republican presidential candidate, has 47 delegates.
Even after winning the majority of the states with so- called Super Tuesday contests on March 6, Romney and his campaign have approached the March 13 races in Mississippi and Alabama as unfriendly turf because of his Northern upbringing and background. He likened them to playing an "away game."
The two states will send 90 delegates to the Republican National Convention in August. Because they are near Georgia (BEESGA), a state that Gingrich represented in Congress for 20 years and whose primary he won on Super Tuesday, expectations for him are especially high this week.
During his "Meet the Press" appearance, Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, stopped short of joining his supporters in calling for Gingrich to leave the race.
"The speaker can stay in as long as he wants, but I think the better opportunity to make sure that we nominate a conservative is to give us an opportunity to go head-to-head with Governor Romney at some point, and hopefully that will occur sooner rather than later," he said.
Santorum, 53, has said his goal is to have the party race become a two-person contest after Alabama and Mississippi.
Gingrich predicted during his Fox interview yesterday that he would win this week's Southern primaries. He also backed away from his spokesman's assertion last week that he needs to win the two to remain viable, and he pledged to continue fighting for the nomination all the way to the party's convention in August.
"He's not a very strong front-runner, and almost all conservatives are opposed to him," Gingrich said of Romney. "We are as likely to see, after the last primary in June, a 60- day conversation about what's going to happen as we are to see Romney nominated."
During his campaign stop in Mobile today, Romney said he expected that tomorrow's contests would come down to a "very small margin" and that he would gather more delegates. Victories tomorrow would help him "take this over the top at a very fast pace," he said, without clarifying if he meant wins in both Mississippi and Alabama.
"By the way we're about two-and-a-half times ahead in the delegate race,' Romney told a crowd driven from a diner parking lot to under the restaurant's awning by an early morning rainstorm. ''So we're doing real well."
Over the weekend, Santorum won 51 percent of the vote in Kansas (BEESKS). The victory netted him 33 of the 40 delegates from a state with a large proportion of Republican voters motivated by their opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Romney and Gingrich had largely ceded Kansas to Santorum, although Paul had campaigned some there.
Weekend wins in Wyoming, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands helped boost Romney's delegate count and helped him surpass Santorum's weekend total.
Along with primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, caucuses also will be held tomorrow in Hawaii and American Samoa.
After this week's contests, the next major prize is the March 20 primary in Illinois.
A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll released over the weekend showed Romney and Santorum in a tight race there. Romney was backed by 35 percent of likely voters and Santorum by 31 percent, within the four-percentage-point margin of error.
The survey showed 16 percent undecided and 46 percent saying it was still possible they would change their minds. It also revealed that Romney is doing better in the suburbs around Chicago, while Santorum holds the advantage outside the state's largest metropolitan area.
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