OKLAHOMA CITY — Rick Santorum proved his strength among conservative voters with Super Tuesday victories in Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota, though whoever emerges as the GOP nominee is almost assured the state's seven electoral votes in November.
President Barack Obama's chances of winning the deeply conservative state in November were already poor, but losing 15 counties to an anti-abortion crusader from West Virginia and a perennial candidate from Midwest City show how deep anti-Obama sentiment is among all voters in Oklahoma, not just Republicans.
With all precincts reporting unofficial results late Tuesday, Santorum secured 34 percent of the vote, while Mitt Romney had 28 percent and Newt Gingrich was a close third with 27.5 percent. Santorum's victory ensured he receives 14 delegates, while Gingrich and Romney each are awarded 13.
The message from Santorum, who visited the state twice in recent weeks, clearly resonated with Christian conservatives, a key component of the state's Republican voters.
"I like his stand on being pro-life," said 74-year-old Henry Strategier, the owner of a heat and air company who cast his vote for Santorum at the Freeman Baptist Church in Norman. "He's a Catholic. He has morals."
Santorum can also boast of winning the "reddest of the red" states, where Obama failed to win a single of its 77 counties in 2008.
Exit polling conducted for The Associated Press and other media showed Santorum's strongest performance came among those who said it was deeply important for a candidate to share their religious beliefs, those who considered abortion a top issue and those seeking a candidate with strong moral character.
"It's the nature of the issues he spoke to," said Keith Gaddie, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma. "He's speaking to the evangelical voters and tea party voters about the need to roll back some of the initiatives that have come out of the Obama administration.
"When he surged, it was because he was likable. He seemed very earnest."
Gaddie said Santorum's victory in Oklahoma also paves the way for a strong performance May 29 in Texas, where voters share many of the same conservative credentials.
"If it plays here, it'll play in Texas," Gaddie said. "We're kind of like spring training for Texas."
The nearly half of voters in the state who called themselves "very conservative" gave Santorum a double-digit advantage over Gingrich, while those who were "somewhat" conservative split about evenly between Romney and Santorum, while more moderate and liberal voters favored Romney outright.
Romney won among those seeking a candidate who could defeat Obama, and Gingrich won more than half of those who said a candidate with the right experience was their top priority.
Results from the Oklahoma exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the AP include 1,097 voters. The survey's margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Christie Hay, 39, a mother of two from Broken Arrow, said she voted for Santorum because she believes he has good family values and will open the Alaskan pipeline for drilling to create jobs and lower gas prices. She said the economy was the biggest factor in her vote.
"In a debate, Santorum would do better than Romney (against Obama)," Hay said.
While much of the excitement Tuesday was on the GOP side of the ticket, the results of the Democratic primary also shocked some political pundits. Randall Terry, a 52-year-old anti-abortion activist from West Virginia, won more than 18 percent of the vote statewide, including victories over Obama in 12 counties, allowing him to claim at least one of the state's Democratic delegates, according to party rules.
"I'm so excited right now I can hardly stand it," Terry told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Tulsa. "This is a big deal."
Jim Rogers, a perennial candidate from Midwest City, finished with nearly 14 percent of the vote against Obama and won three counties outright. Overall, Obama won 57 percent of the Democratic vote in Oklahoma, while Rogers and Terry combined with two other candidates to capture 43 percent.
"It shows a significant percentage of Democratic primary voters were not happy for whatever reason and wanted to deliver that message to the president," said Ben Odom, a political strategist and former vice chairman of the Oklahoma Democratic Party.
"People, even in the Democratic Party, think he's wrong on a number of issues: wrong on oil and gas issues, wrong on taxes, wrong on border security. Oklahoma Democrats are more conservative than nationally, but this goes beyond that."