WASHINGTON (AP) — Mitt Romney's losses in Alabama and Mississippi underscore a stark reality: The core of his party does not want him.
And that lingering conservative dissatisfaction — on display Tuesday night — threatens to follow Romney into a general election matchup against a Democratic president whose ability to inspire his base is not in question.
Romney's huge lead in the race for delegates to this summer's GOP nominating convention seemed forgotten for a night as Rick Santorum reveled in twin victories handed to him by conservatives and evangelicals who dominate the Republican electorate in the party's only remaining regional stronghold — the South.
Santorum's success and Romney's failure exposed deep divisions within a party torn between a conservative base that's looking for a candidate who is pure on GOP orthodoxy and the rest of the party, which is looking for a nominee able to beat President Barack Obama. Tuesday's outcomes also virtually ensure the increasingly nasty slog toward the Republican presidential nomination will consume even more of Romney's time, energy and money when he'd rather be focused solely on the general election, and Obama.
"We will compete everywhere," an inspired Santorum told cheering supporters in Lafayette, La.
In addition, Santorum's victories — in states Newt Gingrich recently declared essential to his candidacy — suggested that the former House speaker's path to victory, already in question before Tuesday's contests, is virtually nonexistent. Aside from winning his home state of Georgia last week, he has lost nearly two dozen consecutive contests spanning more than seven weeks.
Despite his losing streak, Gingrich vowed to fight on until his party's nomination in August — and crowed about Romney's weaknesses.
"The fact is, in both states, the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote. And if you're the front-runner — if you're the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you're not much of a front-runner," Gingrich said.
Indeed, Romney has consistently struggled to win over his party's most conservative voters — evangelicals and tea party supporters among them — even in states he's won. But that opposition proved devastating Tuesday.
Half of voters in Alabama and Mississippi said Romney's positions were not conservative enough. Among self-described conservatives, that spiked to 6 in 10 in each state. And among all GOP voters, just a third in Mississippi and about a quarter in Alabama called Romney's positions on the issues about right.
Romney made no public appearances to offer a defense Tuesday night.
Instead, his campaign offered a written statement that congratulated Santorum, while reminding people of his huge delegate advantage. It seemed an unusual way to try to demonstrate confidence, but that's exactly what the statement did, suggesting he would ultimately win the nomination battle.
"With the delegates won tonight, we are even closer to the nomination," Romney said in the statement. "Ann and I would like to thank the people of Alabama and Mississippi. Because of their support, our campaign is on the move and ready to take on President Obama in the fall."
Despite Tuesday's performance, Romney continues to be the overwhelming Republican favorite, both on paper and in the minds of Republican voters across the nation. A whopping 74 percent of likely voters think Romney will capture the Republican nomination, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted last week.
And he did pick up more delegates than Santorum did on Tuesday, thanks to a nine-delegate sweep in American Samoa and a victory in Hawaii's caucuses.
Coming into this week's contests, Romney had more delegates than his rivals combined, and is amassing them at a rate that puts him on track to clinch control of nomination before the GOP convention opens in late August. The latest Associated Press tally shows him with 495 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. Santorum has 252, Gingrich 131 and Ron Paul 48.
With a single victory Tuesday in either Alabama or Mississippi, Romney could have emerged with a far different story line. Instead, his losses reinvigorated his underfunded and understaffed opponents, including Gingrich. The former Georgia lawmaker had been proving useful to Romney, who had scraped together several wins in part because conservatives had split their allegiance between Santorum, an outspoken social conservative, and Gingrich, whose fiery temperament and Southern roots helped win him favor among some conservatives.
But Gingrich's double losses Tuesday allowed Santorum to make the most convincing argument to date that it's finally time for divided conservatives to rally behind a single Romney alternative. And it's likely that conservative leaders will join that call in the coming days.
"The time is now for conservatives to pull together," Santorum said.
Even if that happens, it's unlikely to be enough to help Santorum win enough delegates to ultimately defeat Romney. But it's enough to extend the primary battle for weeks, if not months.
It's also enough to prevent Romney from focusing on Obama, the general election and, perhaps even more importantly, raising money for it.
Romney has started facing some financial stresses. His campaign has used an internal pollster only sparingly in recent weeks to cut costs. And Romney hasn't been able to devote as much time to fundraising as he'd like because he's been forced to spend time on the campaign trail as the race moves from state to state.
Should Romney clinch the nomination as expected, the question will become: Can a Republican challenger beat a Democratic incumbent without the GOP base being energized behind his candidacy?
The answer will come in eight months.
Steve Peoples covers the 2012 presidential race for The Associated Press.