WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum looked for a win in Louisiana's primary Saturday to boost his Republican presidential campaign while front-runner Mitt Romney braced for an expected loss.
No matter who wins the state, the overall trajectory of the fight for the party's nomination was unlikely to change. Santorum still dramatically lags in the hunt for delegates to the GOP's summertime nominating convention, and Romney remains the prohibitive favorite to become the nominee.
Even so, Santorum made clear he would press on beyond Louisiana and spent Saturday campaigning in next-up Wisconsin, which votes April 3 and represents one of his last chances to beat Romney in a Midwestern state.
"Stand for your principles. Don't compromise. Don't sell America short," Santorum implored Wisconsin voters in Milwaukee, telling them that he expected their state to be "the turning point in this race."
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.
Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks showed that the bad economy was the top issue for Louisiana voters, and 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.
Beating President Barack Obama in the fall was the most important consideration for about four of every ten Louisiana voters.
The former Pennsylvania senator badly needed a rebound after a decisive Illinois loss to Romney earlier in the week that moved party stalwarts to rally around the former Massachusetts governor. Many urged Santorum and fellow candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to drop out of the race.
Both refused, and campaigned aggressively in Louisiana in hopes that a victory there would justify them continuing their bids despite Republican worries that the drawn-out nomination fight could hurt the party's chances this fall against President Barack Obama. The Democratic incumbent faces no serious primary challenge and his re-election campaign already is well under way.
Romney barely campaigned in Louisiana, though his allies spent on TV ads there. Instead, Romney was looking past the results and toward the general election.
"I want the vote of the people of Louisiana so we can consolidate our lead," Romney said Friday while campaigning 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."
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.
After the Illinois primary March 20, Romney had 563 delegates, according to an Associated Press tally. Santorum had 263, while Gingrich trailed with 135. Texas Rep. Ron Paul had 50.
Santorum looked to add another Southern state to his win column after beating Romney in Alabama and Mississippi, raising questions about Romney's ability to connect with the party's conservative base, particularly in its Southern heart.
In the run up to Saturday, Santorum found himself on the defensive after suggesting he'd prefer a second term for Obama over a Romney presidency. Santorum was all but forced to walk back those comments, saying less than 24 hours before Louisiana polls opened that "over my dead body would I vote for Barack Obama."
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