Rick Santorum gets some much-needed good news from a newly-released Alabama State University poll, conducted one week ago.  The results show that the race remains close in the state as its primary approaches on Tuesday, but Santorum maintains a narrow lead over Mitt Romney — and a big lead over Newt Gingrich:

The statewide poll conducted by Alabama State University’s Center for Leadership and Public Policy showed 22.7 percent of likely Republican voters supported Santorum, who is scheduled to make campaign appearances Thursday in Huntsville and Mobile.

Former Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney trailed Santorum with 18.7 percent, followed by Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House from neighboring Georgia, with 13.8 percent.

The telephone poll of 470 likely GOP voters showed 29.8 remained undecided and 15 percent saying they intended to support other candidates. The poll did not ask voters whether they supported Ron Paul, the Texas congressman seeking the GOP nomination.

The poll was conducted March 1, prior to the Super Tuesday vote that helped establish Romney and Santorum as leaders in the race for the nomination, with Romney holding a total of 415 delegates and Santorum with 176.

Although the latest poll data has not been posted to Alabama State’s website, one can find the previous poll data and track the trend.  One month earlier, Gingrich led the poll with 27% against only 16% for Romney and 9% for “Santorium.” By February 23rd, Gingrich and Santorum had gone into a virtual tie at 18.9/18.3, respectively.  In between, Santorum had a mediocre debate performance and lost four contests to Romney — and yet Santorum’s support rose in Alabama while Gingrich’s dropped precipitously in this series.

The Birmingham News notes another poll that puts Romney way in front in Alabama, 31.2/21.6 over Santorum, with Gingrich coming in just behind at 21.2%.  However, that poll was conducted by the Alabama Education Association, an affiliate of the NEA, the teachers union, which has its own axes to grind.  However, in both polls, Gingrich occupies third place, which puts his Southern strategy in peril almost before it gets started.  If the Alabama State poll proves accurate, Gingrich won’t have much reason to continue his bid past next Tuesday.

Update: Gingrich’s team points me to a poll result released today from Capital Survey Research Center that shows Gingrich in a close second in Alabama to Mitt Romney, 30/25, with Santorum in third at 20%.  I’ve never heard of this pollster, but that’s not necessarily dispositive, either; there are plenty of regional pollsters that don’t get national attention until state contests become national stories.  The results look fairly counterintuitive, though, and they still show Gingrich trailing by five against Romney — in the South.  I would call that an improvement over the Alabama State poll, but not by much.