BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The South was charmed by Rick Santorum.
The former senator from Pennsylvania and devout Catholic parlayed his message of faith and family into twin victories Tuesday night in the Alabama and Mississippi Republican presidential primaries, beating rival Newt Gingrich in Gingrich's own back yard and shutting out front-runner Mitt Romney is the Republican Party's most crucial region, the South.
Santorum's wins defied poll projections showing him trailing both Romney and Gingrich, and his surging campaign will now undoubtedly get another big boost in both money and voter support ahead of the next round of primaries in Illinois, Louisiana and Arkansas.
"We did it again," Santorum told an excited crowd of supporters in Lafayette, La., where he was already campaigning ahead of the state's March 24 primary. "The time is now for conservatives to pull together."
Tuesday's victories put Santorum well ahead of Gingrich in the primary-within-a-primary fight to become the sole conservative alternative to Romney, who despite a massive financial and organizational advantage placed third in both Southern states.
But Gingrich remained defiant Tuesday night, promising to take the nomination fight -- and the convention delegates he continues to collect -- all the way to the Republican National Convention in Tampa this August.
"With your help we are going to take a much bigger delegation than we had yesterday," Gingrich said, referring to his hopes for a brokered convention in Tampa.
Romney was on an airplane as the results rolled in and offered no public comments about his third-place showing.
The Republican establishment, which has long backed Romney, hoped the former Massachusetts governor would win Mississippi or Alabama to loosen Gingrich and Santorum's grip on the party's conservative base and to demonstrate that he could win in a region critical to his party's chances of retaking the White House.
Despite exit polls showing that voters are most concerned about their nominee's electability, the party's rank and file gravitated toward Santorum, many of them moved by his impassioned speeches on religious freedom and the need to preserve the family.
Santorum was helped by a high turnout among evangelical voters in both states.
Ross Padalino, a retired grocery buyer from Birmingham, said he saw an authenticity in Santorum.
"I don't buy nothing that doesn't come from the heart before it comes out of the mouth," Padalino said. "I can't feel that from the rest of the candidates."
Despite Gingrich's claims, Santorum, who has called for Gingrich to drop out, boldly predicted Tuesday that he would beat Romney outright.
"We are going to win the nomination before the convention," Santorum said.
Santorum beat Gingrich despite the former House speaker's decision to pour all his resources into the two states. Gingrich barnstormed Alabama, hoping his roots in neighboring Georgia would propel him to victory in a third Southern state. The political action committee backing Gingrich ran ads portraying Romney as a "Massachusetts liberal," and Santorum as a "lobbyist from Pennsylvania" whom Southerners couldn't trust.
Gingrich is headed to Chicago on Wednesday for a fundraiser and will continue to campaign in the next round of primaries, his campaign told The Washington Examiner. Santorum was flying to Puerto Rico for two days of campaigning before islanders vote this weekend.