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Romney, Santorum spar on eve of Southern primaries

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy introduces Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at a campaign stop at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Monday, March 12, 2012, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/ John David Mercer)

BILOXI, Miss. – Republican presidential contenders and their SuperPAC supporters campaigned aggressively on land, through the mail and over the airwaves Monday on the eve of primaries in Alabama and Mississippi with the potential to solidify or shake Mitt Romney’s standing as front-runner.

In the Deep South, one of the most conservative regions of the country, Romney and his Republican rivals polished their credentials with attacks on President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy and the nation’s use of energy. “The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is,” said Rick Santorum.

But those criticisms were mere warm-up for the candidates going after each other. Gingrich is struggling for survival in Tuesday’s primaries, and Santorum is laboring to redeem his claim that Romney can’t secure the support of conservatives, particularly evangelicals who are part of the party’s key base.

“If the opportunity provides itself in an open convention, they’re not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who has been outspending his opponent 10-1 and can’t win the election outright,” Santorum said in a television interview as he campaigned across Alabama and Mississippi.

Romney countered, also on television. “We’re closing the deal, state by state, delegate by delegate,” he said, emphasizing his lead in the category that matters most.

He has 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 convention opens next summer, a prospect that his rivals prefer not to dwell on. AP’s tally shows him with 454 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, Santorum with 217, Gingrich with 107 and Ron Paul with 47.

AP