Rick Santorum is not expecting an easy ride in Alabama and Mississippi as he attempts to keep alive his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

“It’s a pretty tough battleground down there,” the former Pennsylvania senator told NBC television on Sunday. “We’re running the insurgent campaign and we feel good … We’re just going to hustle.”

With Tuesday’s primaries in the two southern states being fought in rival Newt Gingrich’s “backyard” – Mr Gingrich hails from Georgia – and the governors of both Alabama and Mississippi endorsing Mitt Romney, the frontrunner in the Republican race, Mr Santorum is trying to rein in expectations.

But the stakes could hardly be higher for him and Mr Gingrich as each asserts his claim to being the most viable conservative candidate for the Republicans.

Over the weekend, Republican voters continued to deliver a mixed verdict on their choice to challenge Barack Obama in November. Mr Santorum prevailed in caucuses in Kansas, while Mr Romney won in Wyoming and in the island territories of Guam, the Northern Marianas and the Virgin Islands.

This extended Mr Romney’s comfortable lead in delegates to 454 against 217 for Mr Santorum and 107 for Mr Gingrich, according to the Associated Press. To secure the nomination, 1,144 are needed.

But the solidly Republican Deep South is noted for the strength of its social conservatism – Alabama for its draconian crackdown on illegal immigrants and Mississippi as being at the forefront of the “personhood” movement that would grant foetuses full legal rights, making abortion akin to murder.

That gives both men an opportunity to take advantage of Mr Romney’s lacklustre support in the South.

Tuesday’s primaries, with 90 convention delegates up for grabs, will be important in determining whether Mr Gingrich, who is betting his candidacy on winning in the South, stays in the race.

On Sunday, Mr Gingrich claimed in an interview with Fox News Sunday that he “was pulling ahead” in both states. “I think we’ll win both,” he said.

But if he fares badly and pulls out, that would enable Mr Santorum, who has defied the odds to remain at the head of the pack with Mr Romney for more than a month, to monopolise the conservative vote.

“Santorum and Gingrich are fighting for the same pile of votes,” said Richard Fording, chair of the political science department at the University of Alabama. “Voters here don’t care for Mitt Romney. If you were going to design the exact worst candidate from scratch, you would come up with exactly Mitt Romney,” he said.

But with the duel between Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum splitting the conservative vote, Mr Romney may yet win an advantage. In Alabama, recent polls have shown a three-way race for first place, with Mr Gingrich having a slight edge over Mr Santorum and Mr Romney. But in Mississippi, Mr Romney had an eight percentage point advantage over Mr Santorum and Mr Gingrich, offering him hope of a surprise victory.

The last presidential campaign does not augur well for Mr Romney, however. Although John McCain was viewed as the inevitable nominee by the time Alabama voted, the state still chose Mike Huckabee, the socially conservative former governor of Arkansas.

“[Mr Romney] is a Mormon and a large number of evangelicals don’t even consider Mormons to be Christians, but there are also plenty of reasons for people not to like him,” said Mr Fording, citing Mr Romney’s relatively liberal views, wealth and elite New England ways. “There is a cultural and social gap there.”

Mr Romney has himself admitted as much, describing last week how he was playing an “away game” in the South. But, as with so many other comments on the trail that make him look like he is trying too hard, he uttered a much-ridiculed statement in Alabama last week. “I’m learning to say ‘y’all’. I like grits,” he said, referring to the Southern corn porridge.

Mr Santorum, on the other hand, is receiving strong support in the South. “His Satan talk seems silly to a lot of us but he is talking to evangelical voters who very much believe in Satan,” Mr Fording said.

Although Mr Gingrich is the only Southerner still in the race – and won his home state of Georgia and neighbouring South Carolina resoundingly – he faces challenges in Mississippi and Alabama.

His chequered marital history – he is now with his third wife – concerns many socially conservative evangelicals.

Marvin King, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, said that Mississippians “wear their social conservatism on their sleeve”.

“The economy is of course important – the unemployment rate is 10 per cent – but social issues are what drive people’s hearts,” Mr King said. “Santorum lives and breathes his social conservatism so nobody doubts his sincerity. But a lot of people doubt Gingrich’s sincerity, given his past.”

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