BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum on Sunday nudged rival Newt Gingrich to step aside, arguing that a head-to-head contest between Mr. Santorum and Mitt Romney should “occur sooner rather than later.”
Mr. Gingrich predicted victories in Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and called Mr. Romney the weakest GOP front-runner in nearly a century.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich were campaigning hard two days before a Southern showdown for Republicans battling to challenge President Obama in the fall.
Losing Alabama and Mississippi could damage the campaign of Mr. Gingrich, who has banked his waning prospects on an all-Southern strategy. The former House speaker’s primary wins have been in South Carolina and Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years.
Mr. Romney has built a substantial delegate lead but has failed so far to win a state in the deep South, home to the Republican Party’s most dedicated base voters.
On NBC’s Meet the Press, Mr. Santorum said Mr. Gingrich’s recent stretch of weak showings suggests he has few options left in the race.
Mr. Gingrich placed third in Kansas and last in Wyoming, whose caucuses Mr. Romney won Saturday.
“The speaker can stay in as long as he wants, but I think the better opportunity to make sure that we nominate a conservative is to give us an opportunity to go head to head with Gov. Romney at some point and hopefully that will occur sooner rather than later,” Mr. Santorum said, adding he wasn’t directly asking Mr. Gingrich to get out.
At the First Baptist Church of Brandon, Miss., Mr. Gingrich stepped forward at the invitation of Pastor Scott Thomas on Sunday to describe his religious evolution.
Mr. Gingrich, who recently converted to Catholicism, never mentioned his new faith but touched on his well-publicized marital history.
“There are periods of my life in which I have sinned,” Mr. Gingrich said. “I have been very, very fortunate that I have a very, very close relationship with Callista. ... I had to earn being a 68-year-old grandfather by living through things that I would never want my grandchildren to repeat.”
Mr. Gingrich has been married three times. He had an extramarital relationship with Callista, his current wife, for six years while married to his second wife.
On Fox News Sunday, Mr. Gingrich compared Mr. Romney to Leonard Wood, a U.S. Army general from New Hampshire who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 but lost on the tenth ballot to Warren Harding.
“He’s not a very strong front-runner,” Mr. Gingrich said of Mr. Romney. “Almost all conservatives are opposed, which is the base of the party. And I think we are likely to see after the last primary in June, we’re likely to see a 60-day conversation about what’s going to happen.”
In August Republicans head to their national convention in Tampa.
Mr. Gingrich also took aim at Mr. Santorum, saying his support for earmarks and other spending projects while in Congress alienated Republican voters in 2006, when Mr. Santorum lost re-election to the Senate by an 18-point margin.