MONTGOMERY, ALA. - For weeks, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been echoes of each other, both aiming their urgent verbal fire at Mitt Romney, the man they are desperate to stop from becoming the leader of the Republican Party.
But the political and geographical imperatives of two important Southern primaries next week are forcing the two men to turn on each other as they seek to demonstrate an ability to unite the party's conservative base.
It is a clash that has been building for weeks as both men circled each other warily, mindful that a shot at the White House was at stake. On Wednesday, Santorum's campaign and his allies turned gingerly to the urgent challenge: prodding Gingrich to abandon the race so that conservatives could unite behind Santorum's candidacy against Romney.
And a top strategist for Santorum has been reaching out to a counterpart in the Gingrich campaign over the past three weeks to try to persuade Gingrich to withdraw for the good of the conservative movement.
Santorum said that anyone calling on Gingrich to withdraw was "not doing so with my knowledge."
But he also made it clear that he would not mind if it were to happen. "I'm not saying I don't want him to get out," he said. "If he wants to get out, I'm all for him getting out."
He added: "I wish President Obama would just hand me the thing. But that's not going to happen."
A chorus of appeals for Gingrich to drop out began at sunrise Wednesday and was immediately rejected by Gingrich and his advisers, setting the stage for a weeklong battle ahead of primaries in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday.
Stuart Roy, a spokesman for the super PAC backing Santorum, called Gingrich's campaign "an obvious nonstarter" and said that "Newt has become a hindrance to a conservative alternative."
And Richard Viguerie, a conservative icon, said that it had become increasingly clear that "the former speaker can either be a kingmaker or a spoiler, because, to unite conservatives, Gingrich would have to suspend his campaign and endorse Rick Santorum for the Republican nomination for president."
Gingrich's advisers said he had no intention of quitting.
The first real test between Gingrich and Santorum came Tuesday when they faced each other in three primaries. Gingrich won his home state of Georgia but lost to Santorum in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Those results all but ensured a rematch. The question is whether a knockdown, drag-out fight between Santorum and Gingrich will end up benefiting Mitt Romney, the man whom both say they want to stop from becoming the Republican standard-bearer.
Santorum and Gingrich may have to deal with each other before they can confront that point.