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Santorum wins Louisiana primary

Mitt Romney remains far ahead in the delegate count

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was joined by his daughter Sarah Maria during a news conference in Green Bay, Wis., after he won the Louisiana Republican presidential primary.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was joined by his daughter Sarah Maria during a news conference in Green Bay, Wis., after he won the Louisiana Republican presidential primary.

WASHINGTON - Rick Santorum won the Louisiana Republican presidential primary Saturday, beating front-runner Mitt Romney in yet another conservative Southern state.

“We’re still here. We’re still fighting. We still believe, as this race really shows,’’ Santorum told supporters in Green Bay, Wis.

Although the victory gives Santorum bragging rights and at least eight more delegates, it does not change the overall dynamics of the race; the former Pennsylvania senator still dramatically lags behind Romney in the hunt for delegates to the GOP’s summertime nominating convention.

Even so, Santorum’s win underscores a pattern in the drawn-out race.

The underfunded underdog has tended to win in Bible Belt states that include Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. Romney - the deep-pocketed, highly organized former Massachusetts governor - has persistently struggled in such heavily conservative regions.

Santorum said: “I’m not running as a conservative candidate for president. I am the conservative candidate for president.’’

Neither candidate was in the state as Louisiana Republicans weighed in. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich was also absent. With half the precincts counted, Santorum had 49 percent to 26 percent for Romney. Gingrich was far back at 17 percent, followed by Ron Paul with 6 percent.

Romney took a rare day off Saturday, with no public events. Santorum spent the day campaigning in Pennsylvania and next-up Wisconsin, which votes April 3 and represents one of his last chances to beat Romney in a Midwestern state.

Santorum told voters in Milwaukee that he expected their state to be “the turning point.’’

In an unmistakable jab at Romney, Santorum added: “Don’t make the mistake that Republicans made in 1976. Don’t nominate the moderate. When you do, we lose.’’ It was a reference to Ronald Reagan losing the 1976 Republican nomination to incumbent President Gerald Ford, and Democrat Jimmy Carter winning the White House.

Early exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and television networks showed that Santorum’s win in Louisiana was one of his strongest performances to date among conservatives, working-class voters, and those calling the economy their top issue. And he continued his dominance among white evangelical voters and those looking for a candidate who shares their religious beliefs. Santorum topped Romney among evangelical voters by more than 2 to 1.

As in previous Southern states, Romney’s best showing came among those voters with annual incomes above $100,000 and those who prioritized a candidate’s ability to defeat President Obama in November.

The bad economy was the top issue for Louisiana voters. Most were gloomy about prospects for a recovery, saying they felt the economy was getting worse instead of better. While some national surveys suggest Americans are feeling optimistic about economic improvement, just one in eight Republican primary voters said they thought a recovery was underway.

Romney is far ahead in the delegate count and on pace to reach the necessary 1,144 delegates before the party’s convention in August.

With the Louisiana results, Romney leads the overall race for delegates with 563, followed by Santorum with 271, Newt Gingrich with 135 and Ron Paul with 50.

Santorum badly needed a rebound after a decisive Illinois loss to Romney earlier in the week that moved party stalwarts to rally around the front-runner. Many urged Santorum and Gingrich to drop out of the race.

Both refused and campaigned aggressively in Louisiana in hopes that a victory there would justify them staying in - despite Republican worries that the long nomination fight could hurt the party’s chances against Obama. The Democratic incumbent faces no serious primary challenge and his reelection campaign already is well under way.

Romney barely campaigned in Louisiana, though his allies spent on TV ads there.

“I want the vote of the people of Louisiana so we can consolidate our lead,’’ Romney said Friday during a stop in Shreveport. He told supporters his campaign wants to focus on “raising the money and building the team to defeat someone that needs to be out of office in 2012, and that’s Barack Obama.’’

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