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 10 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 under-funded underdog has tended to win in Bible Belt states that include Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. Romney — a deep-pocketed, highly organized former Massachusetts governor — has persistently struggled in such heavily conservative regions.
Said Santorum: "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. Nor was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was trailing in Louisiana. With 100 percent of the precincts counted, unofficial returns showed Santorum with 49 percent to 27 percent for Romney. Gingrich was far back at 16 percent, followed by Ron Paul with 6 percent.
Romney tweeted his congratulations to Santorum: "Congratulations to Rick Santorum in LA. I look forward to the contests to come and to defeating (at)BarackObama in November."
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 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 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 Barack 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 under way.
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 568, followed by Santorum with 273, 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.
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