WASHINGTON -- Rick Santorum on Tuesday became the undead candidate for president.
Rick Santorum was close to being left for a goner before the results from Mississippi and Alabama were in. Polls showed him behind Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in both states, and political observers were prepared to see him finish third in both. Such a result would have left his candidacy badly injured, and the vibe from Santorum's own campaign was morose.
But Santorum shocked the political world and won both states. He won Alabama with 34.6 percent to Gingrich's 29.3 percent and Romney's 28.9 percent, with 94 percent of the vote counted. He won Mississippi in a closer contest, 32.9 percent to 31.3 percent for Gingrich and 30.3 percent for Romney, with 98 percent counted.
It was exactly the kind of victory Santorum had heretofore lacked, one in which he beat Romney and Gingrich in a high-stakes match that all three candidates were badly trying to win.
"We did it again," Santorum told a cheering crowd of supporters in Lafayette, La., where voters will go to the polls on March 24. "This campaign is about ordinary folks doing extraordinary things, sort of like America."
"I don't think there was a single poll that had me anywhere close in Mississippi," he said.
The spin that Santorum's campaign was trying to sell before the results came in -– when most people including them seemed to assume that Santorum would lose the two southern contests -– will now get a fresh look. Their case is that Santorum can catch up to Romney in the delegate race in part by gaining at the state conventions that are to come, the final step where delegates are selected to go to the national convention in Tampa this August.
But the only way that is ever going to happen is if Santorum gains a groundswell of support among the Republican grassroots that could sweep through the country and move enough support his way that substantial numbers of delegates are persuaded to move their support away from other candidates and toward him.
The delegate and state convention process is arcane, complicated, and varies from state to state. But the more important and basic point is that if Santorum keeps winning, in Missouri on Saturday, in Illinois in a week, and in Louisiana on March 24, then there will be a growing energy behind his candidacy that the Romney campaign in Boston will not be able to dismiss with talk of delegate math. That's because the grassroots energy and momentum is a major factor that could affect the delegate math in a real way, both at state conventions and at the national convention if it ends up being contested.
One candidate needs to reach 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination, and it's possible that none of them can reach that number before Tampa. In that case, the nomination could come down to a convention in which there are multiple votes to decide a candidate.
But Santorum said Tuesday night in his victory speech that "we are going to win this nomination before that convention."
Romney, for his part, emphasized the number of delegates he was able to win because the states allocate their delegates proportionally, rather than winner-take-all. He was expected to reap most of the delegates from two other contests in Hawaii and American Samoa, which will award 17 delegates and 6 delegates respectively.
"I am pleased that we will be increasing our delegate count in a very substantial way after tonight," Romney, who did not hold an election night rally, said in a statement. "With the delegates won tonight, we are even closer to the nomination."
The Associated Press estimated that Romney would receive at least seven of Alabama's 47 delegates, and at least 11 of Mississippi's 37 delegates.
Romney had 472 delegates to Santorum's 244, Gingrich's 127 and 47 for Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), after the Mississippi and Alabama results, according to AP estimates.
Santorum's win on Tuesday was a dream scenario in creating pressure on Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia, to drop out. Gingrich acknowledged that a second-place finish in both states "wasn't as much as we wanted." But he also vowed to stay in the race.
Nevertheless, the pressure on him to quit will be intense, and will at least accentuate that Santorum is clearly the conservative grassroots' preferred choice to take on Romney in a one-on-one contest. That might sideline Gingrich to the point that Santorum begins picking up large swaths of his support.
"After tonight this is going to be a two-man race. It's going to be Rick and Mitt, and we're going to clear the field and Rick's got a good shot down the road," said Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart, on CNN.
John Brabender, a senior adviser to Santorum, did not call on Gingrich to exit, but said in a separate interview on CNN after the results came in: "I think to be honest with you that we've earned a one-on-one with Mitt Romney."
Late in the night, there were moves by the Gingrich campaign to begin floating the idea of a Gingrich-Santorum ticket.
"Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum would make a powerful team against Barack Obama," a senior Gingrich adviser told The Huffington Post in an email. "They have the capability to deny Gov. Romney the nomination."