Santorum wins Kansas Republican caucuses

Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, talks to supporters during a rally Saturday, March 10, 2012, in Springfield, Mo., after  winning the Republican presidential caucuses in Kansas. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, talks to supporters during …

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rick Santorum overwhelmingly won the Kansas presidential caucuses Saturday, hoping to blunt front-runner Mitt Romney's momentum in the grinding campaign for the nomination to oppose President Barack Obama in the November election.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, was considered the favorite in Kansas, where his staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage resonated with the state's large bloc of evangelical voters. He hoped his victory would give him an advantage heading into Tuesday's pivotal primaries in the southern states of Alabama and Mississippi where polls show he is dividing the most conservative vote with Newt Gingrich.

Returns from 94 percent of the state's precincts showed Santorum with 51 percent support, far outpacing Romney, who had 21 percent. Gingrich had 14 percent and Ron Paul trailed with 13 percent.

Santorum picked up at least 30 of the state's 40 delegates at stake, cutting slightly into Romney's overwhelming's advantage.

"Things have an amazing way of working out," Santorum told supporters in Missouri, where he traced his campaign through a series of highs and lows. He called his showing in Kansas a "comfortable win."

Republican voters were also holding caucuses this weekend in Wyoming and the Virgin Islands.

Romney was showing strength In Wyoming, where some counties caucused earlier in the week, Romney had five of the 12 delegates at stake, Santorum had two, Paul had one, and one was uncommitted. Three more remained to be determined in party meetings later Saturday.

Romney, the front-runner by far in the delegate competition, padded his lead overnight when he won all nine delegates on the island of Guam and an equal number in the Northern Mariana Islands.

Romney did not campaign in Kansas. Santorum and Paul, a Texas congressman, both made stops in the state in the days leading to the caucuses.

Gingrich canceled a scheduled trip to Kansas late in the week to concentrate on the primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, which the former speaker of the House of Representatives considers friendlier territory. Gingrich, who represented a Georgia district in the House for two decades, attended five campaign events Saturday in Alabama and stressed his Southern connections.

Polls show a close three-way race in both southern states, particularly Alabama, and Romney, Gingrich and Santorum all added to their television advertising for the race's final days.

Santorum hopes that a poor showing by Gingrich in these southern contests will drive the former Georgia congressman from the race and enable him to establish himself as the sole conservative alternative to Romney.

Romney has been benefiting so far because the more conservative vote has been divided between Santorum and Gingrich, enabling him to defeat Santorum by a few percentage points in such key states as Ohio and Michigan.

The former Massachusetts governor continues to fight skepticism among Republican voters about his past, more moderate, views on such sensitive social issues as abortion. Santorum styles himself as the true conservative in the race, but he lacks the campaign cash and organization that the multimillionaire Romney, the former CEO of a private equity firm, has at hand.

Romney had 441 delegates in the AP's count, more than all his rivals combined. Santorum had 213, while Gingrich had 107 and Paul had 46.

A candidate must win 1,144 delegates to clinch the Republican presidential nomination at the national convention in Tampa, Florida, next August.

In sparsely populated Wyoming, there were 15 county conventions during the day to pick six convention delegates. Another six were chosen earlier, with Romney winning 4, Paul one and one uncommitted.

Kansas drew more attention from the presidential contenders, but not much more, given its position midway between Super Tuesday when Romney won six of the 10 state contests and the Tuesday primaries in Mississippi and Alabama.

An aide to Gingrich said earlier in the week the former House speaker must win both Southern primaries on Tuesday to justify continuing in the campaign.

But Gingrich strongly suggested otherwise on Friday as polls showed a tight three-way contest in Alabama.

"I think there's a fair chance we'll win," the former House speaker told The Associated Press about the contests in Alabama and Mississippi. "But I just want to set this to rest once and for all. We're going to Tampa."

Romney had no campaign appearances Saturday. Romney, hopes for a Deep South breakthrough in Alabama on Tuesday after earlier losing South Carolina and Georgia to Gingrich.

Despite his constant campaign message of having the business background to fix the economy — by far the biggest issue in this election — Romney has not been able to pull away from his rivals for good.

Meanwhile, Obama's team has renewed confidence about the president's chances of winning re-election because of the divisive Republican campaign and more good news in the latest jobs report. But privately, his advisers know that outside factors in the United States and abroad — from high gasoline prices to instability in the Middle East — could still derail his campaign in coming months.

In the latest good economic news, the monthly jobs report released Friday showed employers created 227,000 jobs in February. The unemployment rate held steady at 8.3 percent, the result of more Americans looking for work as job growth takes hold month by month.

The struggling economy has haunted the president as he seeks a second four-year term in November, and his Republican opponents have hammered the issue in their campaigns. But Obama's approval ratings have been rising along with the economic numbers.

"America is coming back," Obama told a fundraising event in Texas on Friday night.

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Associated Press writers David Espo and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington, Thomas Beaumont in Alabama and Phil Elliott, John Hanna and John Milburn in Kansas, and Ken Thomas in Virginia contributed to this report.

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