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Santorum basks in 2 Southern wins, but Romney likes the math as GOP race heads to Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) ' The Republican presidential contest rumbled into Puerto Rico Wednesday as a two-man race, with Rick Santorum nipping more aggressively at Mitt Romney's heels after again frustrating the front-runner in Southern primaries.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, with little to show for pinning his hopes on the South, nonetheless vowed to stay in. His deputy campaign manager outlined a strategy aimed at denying Romney a clean win in the delegate race and making Gingrich's case along the way to the Republican convention in August.
But after taking Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, Santorum called for the party's faithful to unite behind him as the race spreads to Illinois, Louisiana and parts of the country.
"Now is the time to pull together," Santorum declared to conservatives in Lafayette, La. "We are campaigning everywhere there are delegates because we are going to win this nomination before the convention."
Unbowed by two third-place finishes, Romney noted his impressive lead in the delegate race after Tuesday night's four contests. Romney won the Hawaii caucuses and all nine delegates up for grabs in American Samoa's caucuses.
"I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight," he said in a statement. Earlier, Romney told CNN that Santorum was "at the desperate end of his campaign."
Santorum's two Southern wins gain him little or no ground in the delegate competition dominated by Romney, despite their symbolic weight coming after his victories last week in Tennessee and Oklahoma.
The race now turns to caucuses Saturday in Missouri, where Santorum and Romney already have invested substantial time, and Puerto Rico's primary on Sunday, which is drawing rare attention in a year when the race has drawn out longer than most.
Santorum made an unusual start to two days of campaigning in Puerto Rico, heading into a private meeting Wednesday with a friend from their days together in Washington, Gov. Luis Fortuno ' who already has endorsed his rival Romney.
Romney wasn't slated to arrive in the U.S. territory until Friday, after spending two days in New York City raising money.
Romney already is spending to dominate the airwaves in Illinois, which will offer a hefty 54 delegates in voting Tuesday. His campaign has put down almost $1 million for Illinois TV advertising, on top of $2.4 million spent there by a supportive super PAC.
Romney's seemingly unassailable delegate lead left his opponents' campaigns talking about less orthodox ways to stop him. John Brabender, senior strategist for the Santorum campaign, said many of the delegates weren't bound and could still switch their votes to Santorum.
Suggesting it's time for Gingrich to make way, Brabender told CNN Wednesday morning that the message was going out to tea party and conservative voters: "Let's make sure our voice is louder than the minority of the party who wants Mitt Romney."
Tuesday night's results marked the continuation of a long, hard-fought Republican nomination fight ' and underscored Romney's persistent weakness with conservatives, particularly in the GOP's regional stronghold of the Deep South. Together, Santorum and Gingrich accounted for huge majorities of votes in Alabama and Mississippi, prompting Gingrich to crow: "The fact is, in both states, the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote. If you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner."
Romney had been hoping for at least one Southern victory Tuesday that might have allowed him to start arguing it was time for the party to gather behind him and begin the general election fight against President Barack Obama.
Instead, Romney now faces a resurgent Santorum ' and he is without the overwhelming financial advantage he boasted throughout the early states. Romney's campaign trimmed some spending in recent weeks as he was forced to spend more time campaigning and less time fundraising. Still, he's got more delegates than his rivals combined.
Santorum's victories Tuesday were worth at least 35 delegates, but Romney won at least 41. Gingrich won at least 24, while Ron Paul picked up at least one. The delegate split underscored the difficulty Romney's rivals face in overcoming his big lead.
The partial allocation of delegates from Tuesday's voting states left Romney with 495 in The Associated Press count, out of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination. Santorum had 252, Gingrich 131 and Paul 48.
And while Santorum in particular challenges the mathematical projections, Romney is amassing delegates at a rate that puts him on track to clinch control of the nomination before the convention next summer.
A senior Romney adviser, Jim Talent, said the campaign is where it needs to be. "We're really running against the delegate totals more than any of the others," Talent told CNN on Wednesday.
Gingrich deputy campaign manager Vince Haley suggested the former House speaker was putting himself in position to compete at a brokered convention, saying Gingrich could "win a debate in this country over the course of the rest of this campaign."
It is rare for Alabama and Mississippi to play an important role in a Republican nominating campaign, but the 2012 race has gone on far longer than usual.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher and Connie Cass in Washington contributed to this report.