Close race shaping up in Ala., Miss.

GULFPORT, Miss. – Polls trickled in Friday showing Newt Gingrich in a tight race in Tuesday’s Mississippi and Alabama primaries and, in one case, climbing quickly.

At the same time Gingrich insisted in an interview with the Associated Press that he did not have to win both states to continue his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.

"We'll clearly do well enough to move on and I think there's a fair chance we'll win," he said. "But I just want to set this to rest once and for all: We're going to Tampa," the site of the August GOP convention.

The remarks came in contrast to his spokesman, R.C. Hammond’s comment Wednesday that states from South Carolina to Texas “all have to go for Gingrich.”

The former U.S. House Speaker leads in Mississippi according to an American Research Group poll that had Gingrich at 35 percent, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 31 percent and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 20 percent. But a Rasmussen Poll of Mississippi showed Romney in the lead with 35 percent, followed by Gingrich and Santorum tied at 27 percent .

A Rasmussen Poll of Alabama shows a dead heat: Gingrich at 30 percent, Santorum at 29 and Romney at 28. Alabama State University’s Center for Leadership and Public Policy showed Gingrich and Romney virtually tied at 20.7 percent and 20.2 percent, respectively, with Santorum at 16.6 percent. Gingrich’s support jumped 7 percentage points in a week in the Alabama State poll.

Alabama State did not include the fourth presidential contender – Texas Rep. Ron Paul – in its polls, though 15.1 percent selected “others.” The Rasmussen and ARG polls showed Paul in single digits in both states.

Alabama State, which conducted live telephone interviews over several days, is considered the most reliable of the polls released Friday. Given the time and money spent by all three of the top candidates in the two states, it’s clear they think the race is tight as well.

The Gingrich campaign made rare television ad purchases – and an even rarer step of publicizing the amount – in both states, bringing their total television spending to $124,000 in Alabama and $83,000 in Mississippi. The money is behind an ad touting the Gingrich pledge to reduce gas prices to $2.50 through increased domestic drilling offshore and on federal lands.

Super PACs backing all three major candidates have spent six figures on advertising in the two states, mostly to attack each other.

All three candidates are appearing in Alabama and Mississippi but none as much as Gingrich, who is devoting the entire week leading up to the primaries to campaigning in the neighboring Deep South states.

The Gingrich comeback plot relies on the South and taking down Santorum, who has surged in recent weeks. The former senator captured Tennessee and Oklahoma on Tuesday – states where Gingrich had tried to compete.

Santorum is best known as a strident social conservative, but while representing Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate he had some lapses from conservative orthodoxy that his foes have been eager to highlight. The Gingrich campaign gathered allies on a conference call with reporters Friday morning to remind them of Santorum’s vote against a national right-to-work law and support for big federal spending in the early 2000s.

Pennsylvania Republican strategist Charlie Gerow – Gingrich’s state chairman there – also stressed Santorum’s 18-percentage point loss to Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in 2006, the most lopsided defeat for a sitting senator since 1980.

“He will say he lost in a bad year,” Gerow said. “That was true. It was a bad year because Republicans were acting nationally against a Congress of which he was a part. … Democrats used his own words against him. Conservatives didn’t trust him. They stayed home in the primary and sat on their hands or voted for a third party in fall.”

Santorum supporters and other conservatives have been urging Gingrich to drop out of the race since Super Tuesday, when Gingrich won his old home state of Georgia but no other contests.

Santorum, in an interview with Bloomberg TV, said performing well on Tuesday will help force Gingrich out.

“Congressman Gingrich finished first in one state, his home, and finished third or fourth everywhere else [on Super Tuesday], which has been a consistent pattern,” Santorum said. “So we feel pretty good that it's now narrowing to a two-person race.”

Gingrich only has wins in South Carolina and Georgia and trails Romney and Santorum in unofficial Associated Press delegate tallies, but the Gingrich campaign points out that he has a narrow lead on Santorum in pledged delegates – a count that does not include delegates from caucus states like Iowa that could flip later to another candidate.

The Gingrich campaign also has delighted in reports of Santorum's failure to compete for all the delegates in upcoming states due to a haphazard organization. Gingrich has suffered from similar woes -- including not making the ballot in Virginia -- but Santorum appears to be struggling even more.

Meanwhile, Gingrich avoided the topic of his Republican rivals Friday on the trail and even during a photo opportunity in front of an oil rig in Laurel, Miss., where he discussed his chief campaign theme – the need to drill for more oil. When a reporter asked for his thoughts on Romney’s and Santorum’s energy policies, Gingrich chuckled and replied: “Nice try.”

He added, “I hope they’ll join in the idea that we ought to have energy independence and the idea that we ought to have $2.50 gasoline.”

His advisers were more direct.

Gingrich chief of staff Patrick Millsaps, a southwest Georgia attorney, asked in a Twitter post “Should Rick bow out?” in light of the ARG poll showing Gingrich ahead in Mississippi.

Gingrich supporters interviewed across Mississippi in recent days asked the same question when told there are calls for Gingrich to eject from the race so conservatives could get behind Santorum.

“That’s his decision,” Kenny Beck, of Tupelo, Miss., said when asked when Gingrich should drop out. “I honestly believe Newt is the best one in the race.”

But there is concern that an indefinite primary election season could damage hopes in the fall. It’s leading Clayton Long, of DeKalb, Miss., to consider backing Romney.

“It makes me wonder whether I should vote for the one I think can win or the one I want to win,” he said. “Maybe it helps him get out front. They need some time to rally the base.”