Santorum: Gingrich campaign soon "irrelevant"

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum greets supporters during a rally Friday, March 9, 2012, in Topeka, Kan. Hoping to tap into deep distrust of Washington, Republican Rick Santorum suggested Friday that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney share a top priority: to take away Americans' money and freedom so they can tell them how to live. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum greets supporters during a rally Friday, March 9, 2012, in Topeka, Kan.
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

(CBS News) MERIDIEN, Miss. - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, fresh of his victory in the Kansas caucuses on Saturday, returned to Mississippi on Sunday to stake his claim as the standard-bearer of the GOP's conservative base, and he warned that Newt Gingrich's campaign will soon be "irrelevant."

In an interview after his second campaign event in Mississippi on Sunday, Santorum, a former congressman and senator from Pennsylvania, said the choice of conservative voters was evident yesterday.

"The reddest state in the country, Kansas, the most conservative red state -- Republicans own everything in Kansas -- we got fifty percent of the vote," Santorum said. "Congressman Gingrich spent a lot of money there, more money than we did."

Special Section: Campaign 2012

Gingrich came in third in Kansas with 14 percent of the vote. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was second, with 21 percent.

While Santorum won the most delegates in Kansas, Romney easily won the caucuses in Wyoming, which also announced results Saturday. Attention now turns to Mississippi and Alabama, which hold primaries on Tuesday.

Gingrich's only primary wins have come in the South. He won in January in South Carolina and last week in Georgia, the state he represented in the U.S. House of Representatives for twenty years, including four as Speaker.

Santorum said, "I understand there's some regional appeal for Congressman Gingrich, but he's won two states, out of what, 25 races so far? And he's finished third of fourth in almost every other race, and so, it's just not going anywhere for him."

Of the 1,144 delegates needed to be nominated at the Republican convention, CBS NEWS estimates that Romney has won 428, well ahead of Santorum's 179 and Gingrich's 97. Texas congressman Ron Paul, who is still actively campaigning but has yet to win a primary or caucus, has an estimated 39 delegates.

"We need to have somebody who can actually go out there and be the conservative alternative and have the best chance to win this nomination and then elect a conservative in the general election," Santorum said. "I know that's what Republicans in Mississippi want. They want a conservative. They don't want a liberal Massachusetts governor as our nominee. This is the best opportunity to coalesce on a conservative candidate, and we're going to make that happen."

Gingrich asserted in an interview with CBS News on Friday that he plans on staying in the race all the way to the end of the primaries. Santorum reacted by citing his big win in Kansas yesterday, his close second to Romney in the Michigan primary, and a poll showing him neck and neck with Romney in Illinois, which votes March 20.

Santorum said of Gingrich, "At some point, it becomes irrelevant whether he's in the race. I think this race is going to become a two-person race," meaning Romney and him. "Most of the votes he's getting are coming from me, and they're small percentages, but they're sufficient enough to continue to help Governor Romney be able to pull out some very close wins, and if that's what he [Gingrich] wants to stay in the race to do, then that's his prerogative."

  • Nancy Cordes On Twitter»

    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.

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