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Targeted by Santorum, Gingrich still confident

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum on Sunday nudged rival Newt Gingrich to step aside, saying a head-to-head contest between himself and Mitt Romney should "occur sooner rather than later." A defiant Gingrich predicted victories in Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi and called Romney the weakest Republican front-runner in nearly a century.

Santorum and Gingrich were campaigning hard two days before what has become a potentially decisive Southern showdown for the GOP field.

Losing Alabama and Mississippi would effectively spell the end for Gingrich, who has banked his waning prospects on an all-Southern strategy. The former House speaker's lone primary wins have been in South Carolina and Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years.

A win for Romney in Alabama, where polling shows a tight contest among Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, could all but bring the GOP nominating contest to a close.

Santorum, who has battled to be Romney's chief conservative foe, burnished his standing with a decisive win in Saturday's caucuses in Kansas and carried contests last week in Oklahoma and Tennessee.

On NBC's Meet the Press, Santorum said Gingrich "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."

Gingrich was especially critical of Romney, comparing him to Leonard Wood, an Army general from New Hampshire who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920 but lost on the 10th ballot to Warren Harding.

"He's not a very strong front-runner," Gingrich said on Fox News Sunday. "Almost all conservatives are opposed."