The Ticket

Up next for Santorum: Get Gingrich out, barnstorm the South

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Rick Santorum (Eric Gay/AP)

With 23 state elections now behind the Republican presidential candidates, Rick Santorum lags behind Mitt Romney by nearly 130 committed delegates, and according to his campaign's top strategists, the fastest road to narrowing that gap cuts straight through Dixie.

Romney has yet to win a Southern contest this cycle--unless you count Florida, a state where the farther south you go, the more Northern it gets--and Santorum is looking to the region as his greatest hope of bringing down the front-runner.

But there's just one problem, and it involves a cheerful Georgian named Newt.

On Super Tuesday, Santorum won a majority of votes in Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Gingrich took Georgia and also won the South Carolina primary in January. In order for Santorum's strategy to work, he needs Gingrich off the trail and back at his job as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute STAT.

"It's time to get serious," Santorum's chief strategist John Brabender told reporters Tuesday night in Steubenville, Ohio. "If you're a conservative ... rally behind Rick Santorum, let's take on Mitt Romney. Let's make this mano to mano and see: Do we want a moderate representing us who the establishment wants or do we want an outsider conservative tea party candidate?" (By "outsider," Brebender was referring to a man who served 16 years in Congress and was for a time the chief message man for Senate Republicans, but who's keeping track?)

Brabender suggested in so many words that Gingrich step aside, a proposal Gingrich has given no indication that he's even remotely interested in entertaining. Santorum is also licking his chops at the idea that he could take the state delegates committed to the former House speaker, which would narrow the gap even more.

"There's a lot of states that are in already where they voted for somebody like Newt Gingrich," Brabender said. "Well those aren't necessarily binding delegates, and they can still vote for Rick Santorum. If conservatives and tea party supporters unite behind Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney will not be the nominee."

Meanwhile, the super PAC supporting Santorum called "The Red, White and Blue Fund" issued a statement Wednesday calling for Gingrich to drop his bid as well, referring to him as "a hindrance."

"With Gingrich exiting the race, it would be a true head-to-head race and conservatives would be able to make a choice between a consistent conservative in Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney," said Stuart Roy, a PAC spokesman. "For instance, with Gingrich out of the race Santorum would have won both Ohio and Michigan. Newt has become a hindrance to a conservative alternative."

Over the next few days, Santorum will devote much of his resources to the Southern contests. He plans to hold a series of events in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas after making a quick stop in Kansas, and will run some television ads in Alabama.

This post has been updated to note Romney's victory in Florida.

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