Santorum had been heavily outspent by Romney and did not have anything close to the front-runner’s superior organization.
“The time is now for conservatives to pull together,” Santorum said, adding that “the best chance to win this election is to nominate a conservative to go up against Barack Obama who can take him on on every issue.”
Romney had put an aggressive, late-hour effort into a part of the country that was considered hostile territory for him — one where a win seemed almost inconceivable only a few weeks ago.
Romney won the two smaller contests of the day: the caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa, where he picked up all six delagates and three superdelegates. Romney won 45 percent of the vote in Hawaii, followed by Santorum with 25 percent and Ron Paul with 18. Gingrich came fourth with 11 percent.
The former Massachusetts governor had played down his expectations in the South. But in an interview on Tuesday with CNN, he spoke dismissively of his closest competitor.
“Senator Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign,” Romney said.
Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) have both laid claim to the conservative mantle. But without a win Tuesday in what is essentially his home region, Gingrich may find it difficult to marshal the resources — and a rationale — to continue his campaign.
Gingrich gave no indication Tuesday night that he would end his bid, and he grasped for a silver lining in the fact that Romney also fell short.
“The elite media’s effort to convince the nation that Mitt Romney is inevitable just collapsed,” Gingrich said at a rally in Birmingham, Ala. “If you’re a front-runner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a front-runner.”
In both states, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) ran far behind the three leading contenders.
With Santorum and Gingrich remaining in the race, Romney has been able to exploit the split they have created among the most conservative Republicans, and to build a slow but steady lead in the contest for convention delegates.
Going into Tuesday’s primaries, Romney had 438 delegates, about twice as many as Santorum, who was in second place.
“He’s far behind in the delegate count; he’s far behind in the popular-vote count,” Romney said of the former senator, adding: “If you look at the math . . . it’s a very difficult road for him.”
Romney himself remains well short of the 1,144 delegates it will take to clinch the nomination.
At this point, it is almost mathematically impossible for any of Romney’s rivals to reach that goal, but they are holding on to the hope that by denying him the number he needs, they can take the fight into August and to the Republican National Convention in Tampa.