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Close races in Ala., Miss. fueled by ideology

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JENNIFER AGIESTA | March 13, 2012 10:37 PM EST | AP

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Voters going to the polls for the tightly fought GOP primaries in Mississippi and Alabama expressed strong support for their chosen candidate, according to preliminary exit polls. And those polls suggested the ongoing nomination battle would not lead to a major fracture in the party come November.

Santorum's win in Alabama rested on his advantages among those concerned about shared religious beliefs and women.

IDEOLOGY AND SATISFACTION: Half of voters in both states said Mitt Romney's positions on the issues were generally not conservative enough, while most voters in each state said Newt Gingrich's positions were ideologically about right. About half in each state called Rick Santorum about right. The quarter who called Santorum "not conservative enough" in Mississippi is the highest so far in exit polls where the question has been asked.

Still, most Mississippi voters said they would be satisfied with Gingrich, Romney or Santorum at the top of the ticket, and in Alabama, 8 in 10 said they would definitely vote for the GOP nominee, no matter who wins in the end.

LOOKING AHEAD TO NOVEMBER: Electability remains a top consideration for voters in the GOP primary, with about 4 in 10 in each state saying it was their chief concern in choosing a candidate. Asked separately which of the four remaining candidates had the best shot at beating President Barack Obama in the fall, a plurality chose Romney.

STRONGLY BEHIND THEIR CHOICES: Majorities of GOP voters in both states said they were strongly behind their chosen candidate. Across last week's Super Tuesday contests, the share of voters that secure topped 50 percent only in Georgia, Massachusetts and Oklahoma. In Alabama, Romney voters expressed more reservations about their candidate than did Santorum or Gingrich backers; in Mississippi, about half of Romney's and Santorum's supporters strongly favored their candidate, while about 6 in 10 Gingrich supporters strongly favored him.

RELIGIOUS VALUES: In both states, the vast majority of voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians and about three-quarters said it mattered at least somewhat that a candidate share their religious beliefs. In both Alabama and Mississippi, Santorum held an advantage among those evangelicals who said shared beliefs mattered "a great deal" to their choice. Romney and Gingrich were more competitive among evangelical voters less focused on common religious beliefs.

GENDER GAP: Women pushed Santorum over the top in Alabama, breaking 37 percent for him to 30 percent for Romney and just 24 percent for Gingrich. A majority of Santorum's support in the state came from female supporters, while Gingrich drew most of his support among men. The difference was particularly stark among conservatives. Conservative men broke 41 percent for Gingrich, 32 percent Santorum and 23 percent Romney, while conservative women broke in Santorum's favor, 40 percent for him, 29 percent Gingrich and 25 percent for Romney.

ROMNEY'S EDGE SLIMMER AMONG ECONOMY VOTERS: Economic issues were top of mind for about 6 in 10 voters in both Alabama and Mississippi. Santorum and Gingrich both cut into the advantage Romney has held among economy voters throughout the nominating contests so far. GOP voters in these states remain deeply negative about the nation's outlook, with about 8 in 10 Alabama voters very worried about the direction of the economy and a similar number in Mississippi dissatisfied or angry with the way the federal government is working.

TRUST IN AN INTERNATIONAL CRISIS: With tensions rising in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Alabama voters said they preferred Gingrich over his rivals to handle an international crisis. Four in 10 thought Gingrich would do the best job handling one, outpacing Romney and Santorum by double digits.

LATE DECIDERS: About a third of voters in each state said they made up their minds in the final days of the contest, about on par with the share saying so in Georgia and Oklahoma during last week's Super Tuesday voting. Late breaking voters in Alabama were split between Romney and Santorum; those in Mississippi tilted toward Santorum.

READING THE AIRWAVES: About half of voters in each state said campaign ads were an important factor in their choice, a bit more than said so in Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire or Iowa.

The surveys of voters in Alabama's and Mississippi's GOP presidential primaries were conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results among 1,589 voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites in Alabama, and among 1,665 Mississippi voters as they left 30 polling places. Each survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.