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Southern states play outsized role in GOP primary contest

Alabama and Mississippi may play a negligible role in the general election as reliably red states, but that's what makes them so vital in the Republican presidential primary contest.

The two states vote Tuesday, along with Hawaii, and together provide 90 delegates to the overall GOP contest, which both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich need badly to stay competitive against Mitt Romney.

Alabama and Mississippi get more delegate bang-for-the-buck at the GOP convention than their relative population sizes because the states have heavily Republican-leaning congressional delegations, which are used to apportion delegates in the Republican National Convention. 

Turnout for Tuesday's primary election in Alabama is expected to be high, though not record-setting. Secretary of State Beth Chapman is forecasting 28.9 percent of voters will participate. That compares to states like Virginia, with 49 delegates, where just 5 percent of the electorate turned out.

Two Alabama polls released Friday show Gingrich and Romney fighting for the top spot, with Santorum a close third. But Santorum, off a victory in the Kansas caucuses Saturday, says he's "within striking distance."

According to Tom Vocino, director of the Center for Leadership and Public Policy at Alabama State University, polling indicates that Gingrich and Santorum are competing for the same voters in Alabama. When one goes up in the polls, the other drops, he said.

It's a "tough battleground," Santorum acknowledged Sunday, saying the two states are in Gingrich's "backyard," forcing him to run an "insurgent campaign." 

"If he's successful in Alabama and Mississippi, he will knock Gingrich out of the box," said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.

Still, Gingrich, who has banked his third comeback in the race on his "southern strategy," says he's feeling pretty confident. 

"I think we'll win both. We're campaigning very aggressively in both states," he told "Fox News Sunday." Gingrich said he's traveling between Birmingham, Ala., and destinations in Mississippi over the next two days. Santorum is also traversing the border between the states.

"I think there's a fair chance we'll win," a Gingrich aide told The Associated Press about the contests in Alabama and Mississippi. "But I just want to set this to rest once and for all. We're going to Tampa," sight of the GOP's national convention this summer.

Gingrich would need to do very well to stay in a race that has doled out about 36 percent of the delegates up for grabs so far. The nominee will need 1,144 delegates to win. So far, Romney is keeping a wide lead overall -- garnering 454 delegates, nearly 40 percent of the way to the total needed to secure the nomination. That's compared to 217 for Santorum and 107 for Gingrich and 47 for Ron Paul, according to The Associated Press tally used by most news agencies.

For Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, a Southern breakthrough would show he has the ability to win the support of evangelical voters. And it can be done.

"Romney would have to totally collapse and Gingrich would have to probably drop out" for Santorum to have a shot to win, Sam Fisher, a political science professor at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, told the Alabama Press-Register.

Romney says it may take an act of God for his rivals to catch up. But in the South, that's not a far-fetched concept.

For Santorum to win the nomination, he would need about 63 percent of the remaining delegates up for grabs. Romney would need about 48 percent to secure the nomination while Gingrich would have to collect 71 percent of the remainder to get the nomination.

Santorum said it's not impossible for him to catch up, particularly because he still has big contests in Texas, where he's running far ahead, and his home state of Pennsylvania.

"Romney has secured a lot (of delegates) but ... they're not bound," Santorum told NBC's "Meet the Press." He added that many delegates remain uncommitted or could change their mind.

"The news agency apportioned delegates that had nothing to do with reality," Santorum said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.