BISMARCK, N.D. — Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum's plan to use state conventions to pull support from Mitt Romney has stalled in North Dakota, where Romney has the largest group of backers among the state's delegates to the party's national convention.
Santorum won North Dakota's Republican presidential caucuses on March 6. But at last weekend's state party convention, Romney ended up with the most supporters among the state's 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention in August.
Almost all the national delegates interviewed by The Associated Press said they plan to abide by the March 6 caucus results, meaning Santorum would get to keep his delegates. But his weak showing at the state convention is a blow to his strategy to eat away at Romney's formidable lead in the race for delegates.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, got 40 percent of the vote in North Dakota's caucuses. Texas Rep. Ron Paul got 28 percent, Romney got 24 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got 8 percent.
The state GOP initially said delegates would be awarded in proportion to the caucus results, though the delegates would remain free to vote their conscience. If delegates were awarded proportionally, Santorum would get 11, Paul would get eight, Romney would get seven and Gingrich would get two.
But at the state convention, Romney supporters successfully elected the most delegates — even though the former Massachusetts governor finished third in the caucuses. In interviews with the AP, 12 delegates said they backed Romney, eight supported Santorum, two favored Paul and one preferred Gingrich. Two delegates said they had no favorite.
Rounding out North Dakota's 28 delegates are three members of the Republican National Committee who will automatically attend the convention. Among them, Sandy Boehler supports Romney while Curly Haugland and Stan Stein, the state GOP chairman, are uncommitted.
The delegates said they plan to meet prior to the national convention to decide how they will vote with the idea that they would divvy up votes to reflect the results of the caucuses.
Shane Goettle was elected as a delegate at the state convention. He supports Romney, but said he would honor the results of the March 6 caucuses, even if that means voting for Santorum at the national convention.
"I'm willing to support who I must in order to try to achieve that," Goettle said.
Gary Emineth, a Santorum delegate and former North Dakota Republican party chairman, said he believed Santorum could still gain a majority of the state's delegates.
"My concern is Rick has to have some big wins in the next 45 days," Emineth said Friday.
Emineth said Romney backers "are overstating the support for Romney to try to shut down Santorum. ...They want to force an end to this process."
Romney leads the overall race for delegates with 658, followed by Santorum with 281, Gingrich with 135 and Paul with 51, according to the AP count. It takes 1,144 delegates to clinch the GOP nomination for president. Romney is on pace to reach the threshold in June, while Santorum would need to win 80 percent of the remaining delegates to reach it.
Santorum's campaign repeatedly has argued that he would outperform Romney at state conventions in which the delegates are not predetermined, eating away at Romney's lead. People who attend state party conventions are more conservative than primary or caucus voters, the campaign said in a publicly released memorandum, so they will be more likely to support Santorum over Romney.
At North Dakota's state convention, the 25 elected delegates were part of a slate chosen by party insiders, and their names were printed on a ballot distributed to state convention delegates.
A second paper ballot with the names of all 101 nominees for delegate spots was never prepared, despite vehement protests that one was needed. Critics said the ballot that was distributed was stacked with Romney supporters.
Emineth called the process "a railroad job," while a Paul supporter, Palmer Reising, of Williston, compared it to "the Soviet Union, where we get things done quickly that are unfair."
Emineth said Friday that the "the convention strong-arm job" had galvanized GOP activists on Santorum's behalf.
"You have to still stay fighting for every single delegate," he said. "Every one matters at this point."