WEST MONROE, La. — Republican presidential nominating contests often reveal a rural-urban split in the party, but what sets this year's campaign apart is the emphasis Rick Santorum is placing on that divide and wearing his successes in small-town America as a badge of honor.
To hear Santorum tell it, the ability of front-runner Mitt Romney to win in big-city suburbs is a mark of ideological weakness, not political strength.
"Gov. Romney does well in the counties where Democrats do well, and we do well in the counties where Republicans do well," Santorum said this week. "That might give you some indication as to who the candidate is who best reflects the values of the Republican party."
Whereas President Barack Obama once infamously tried to explain rural culture with an anthropologist's detachment, saying rural Americans "cling to guns or religion" out of a sense of economic desperation, Santorum happily embraces the culture. He worships with Pentecostals in central Louisiana one day and campaigns at a gun range in the north on another, testing his marksmanship by pulling the trigger of a .45-caliber semiautomatic Colt pistol.
Crisscrossing Louisiana this week and Illinois before that, Santorum thrived in small cities and rural areas where social conservatism runs deep, where the stresses of a slow economic recovery are intensely felt and where his faith-based, small-government message resonates more deeply than in cities and suburbs.
In state after state since he began to emerge as the not-Romney candidate in the Republican field, Santorum has beaten Romney in rural areas, even in states Romney ultimately won. In Michigan and Ohio, states where Romney barely prevailed, Santorum won the rural vote 43 percent to 34 percent, and 46 percent to 28 percent, respectively, according to exit polls.
In Illinois, where Romney easily won, Santorum still took the rural-small city vote 45 percent to 35 percent.
On Saturday, Santorum is expected to win in Louisiana, where he has campaigned more vigorously than Romney.
And while Santorum continues to collect delegates off his success in rural counties and congressional districts, his relative weakness elsewhere raises doubts about his ability to slow Romney's march to the nomination.
"He needs to do a lot better in the suburbs than he has recently," John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former top House Republican leadership aide, said of Santorum. "He's definitely the candidate of the sticks."
Stuart Roy, an adviser to a super political action committee that supports Santorum, said Santorum's inability to break through in the suburbs and cities is in a part a function of his conservative message.
"He is maximizing the social conservative base in most states," Roy said. "In doing that you are going to lose some of that suburban moderate vote. There is a trade-off there. The idea here is to win the primary or caucus. It's not about where the vote comes from."
But he said another factor is limited money. Santorum's campaign operates on a shoe-string budget and that means buying television advertising in cheaper markets, which tend not be in the big cities. As a result, suburban voters aren't as exposed to his message as they are to Romney's, along with Romney's deep-pocketed campaign and super PAC.
Santorum aides downplay the need for stringing together state victories, noting that he can keep amassing delegates by winning in states that are conservative strongholds like Louisiana and otherwise staying within reach with rural and small-town victories that also yield a share of delegates.
And Santorum's conservatism has a ready audience outside the city beltways and beyond the collar counties that surround them.
Indeed, rural and small-town voters are most apt to be deeply conservative —37 percent describe themselves that way compared to 33 percent in the suburbs and 31 percent among urban voters, according to surveys in 16 states where exit or entrance polls have been conducted. What's more, 68 percent of rural voters identified themselves as born again or evangelical Christians, compared with about half in urban or suburban precincts.
In the states that will vote in the next two weeks, Wisconsin has the highest concentration of rural small-town voters at 41 percent, according to the 2008 GOP primary exit poll. The state this year is considered a toss-up.
Santorum looks strong in Louisiana, where social conservative Mike Huckabee won in 2008 over John McCain, the eventual Republican nominee. Huckabee won 43 percent of the vote, aided by sizable majorities in the rural and predominantly Protestant northern part of the state.
But the rural-urban, Santorum-Romney divide also raises questions about how strong Santorum would be against Obama should he succeed in his long-shot quest to deny Romney the nomination.
The suburbs are strongholds of swing voters that have been crucial in presidential elections for years.
"He struggles in the swing areas of swing states," Kevin Madden, a consultant for Romney, said of Santorum. "That would put us in a difficult position to win back the presidency. I don't think there is much confidence that he would all of a sudden find the message in a general election."
Santorum, however, sees a model in the conservative candidates who succeeded in the 2010 general election by focusing their campaigns on limited government.
"Whether you are a conservative or an independent or a moderate, I think people are very concerned about the scale and size of the government and this intrusion into people's lives," he said, answering questions outside a fish processing plant in Kenner, La., this week. "We can make this campaign about that."
Santorum appeals on several levels. His social conservatism and religious underpinnings attract some while others like his small-government message.
"His Christian values — it is one of the things that stands out about him," Larry Glascock Jr., a West Monroe, La., truck driver, said at Santorum's stop Friday. "The country needs to turn back to God."
Others like his desire for a smaller government.
"I don't want any big government, no mandates," said James B. Terral, a retired accountant from West Monroe. "Personally I think an employer should not be forced to do anything but pay an employee. They don't need to baby sit them and they don't need to act like they own them. We need more freedom to do what you want to do."
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.