Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum shakes hands, signs autographs, and takes photos with supporters at his prep rally Friday, March 23, 2012, at the Holiday Inn in Shreveport, La.
WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum was turning in his most impressive performance yet with conservatives and blue-collar voters as he rode to triumph Saturday in Louisiana's Republican presidential primary, capturing robust support from nearly all types of people, according to preliminary results of an exit poll.
Highlighting his strength, the former Pennsylvania senator bested Mitt Romney for the first time among those calling the economy the campaign's dominant issue. As usual so far this year, more voters named the economy as their top concern than any other problem and more than 4 in 10 of them said Santorum was their candidate — an embarrassment for Romney, the former venture capitalist who has claimed he knows best how to create jobs.
Romney retained his usual edge among voters whose most prized characteristic in a GOP candidate is finding someone who can defeat President Barack Obama this fall. But the Massachusetts governor's roughly 20 percentage point margin over Santorum on that question was one of his slimmest yet.
Overall, the results painted Louisiana as a state whose Republicans are tailor-made for Santorum, with large numbers of conservative and religiously motivated voters.
Santorum was winning the votes of nearly half of conservatives and tea party supporters. He was doing slightly better than that among those without college degrees — a measure of blue-collar voters.
The devoutly and openly religious Santorum was also showing his usual strength among white born-again and evangelical voters, and among the nearly three-quarters of Louisiana voters who said it is important that they share religious beliefs with their candidate.
In another area where he was turning in one of his best showings, more than 4 in 10 Saturday cited Santorum as the candidate who best understands the typical American, nearly doubling the number citing Romney for that quality.
Only around 1 in 5 Louisiana voters said they were influenced by a comment by a Romney aide likening his campaign's tactics to an Etch A Sketch toy, even though it was one of the week's big political stories.
Those who said the remark played an important role in their choice were leaning toward Santorum over Romney by almost a 3-1 margin. But Santorum was also leading by double digits among those saying the comment was not significant for them.
Asked whether Romney's positions in the GOP primary might make him too conservative for more moderate voters in November's general election, Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom had said the campaign could start over in the fall. Romney's opponents said the remark shows he shifts his views too easily.
"Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up" and start all over again, Fehrnstrom said.
The few groups where Romney was leading included people earning over $200,000 a year and people saying it didn't matter if they shared religious beliefs with a presidential contender.
Around 2 in 3 Louisiana voters said they strongly support their candidate, one of the strongest measures of intensity in any state so far. But majorities also said they would be content if Romney, Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ultimately won the nomination.
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Even as some national Republican leaders have started calling for Romney's rivals to drop out and begin uniting the party for the fall campaign, only about 1 in 4 Louisiana voters said they want the GOP contest to end quickly, even if their contender loses. Seven in 10 said they were happy for the party's internal battle to continue as long as their candidate wins.
Just over half of Louisiana voters said the economy is the issue they most care about, a bit more than the number of voters have typically said in other states.
The survey was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left their polling places at 30 randomly selected sites in Louisiana. The survey involved interviews with 1,458 voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.