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Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks to supporters at an election night party at Steubenville High School in Steubenville, Ohio, Tuesday, March 6, 2012.

BISMARCK, N.D. — Rick Santorum's North Dakota caucus victory was put together in two weeks, powered by religious conservatives whose energy overcame their lack of political experience.

It toppled Ron Paul, whose organizers had been working for months in hopes that North Dakota would give him his first victory. It represented a steep fall for Mitt Romney, who easily won North Dakota's caucuses four years ago and had endorsements from top North Dakota officials, including U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

"Romney runs a campaign based on money," said Gary Emineth, Santorum's North Dakota campaign chairman. "Santorum does it by passionate people getting involved in what they believe."

Santorum had asked Emineth, a Bismarck businessman and former chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party, to lead his North Dakota caucus efforts after conservative radio talk host Scott Hennen invited Santorum to campaign in the state.

Santorum spent Feb. 15 in North Dakota, visiting Tioga, a community in northwestern North Dakota's oil-producing region, before traveling to Fargo to finish the day with an evening rally.

However, the former Pennsylvania senator needed an organized effort to get his supporters to the caucuses, Emineth said late Tuesday. Paul's campaign had a long head start and had opened a state headquarters in November.

"We had a lot of people who had never been involved in the political process before who came onboard," Emineth said. "I had people from all over the state running around, delivering signs, making phone calls, getting people to vote."

On Tuesday, it was Santorum who won handily, according to vote totals tabulated by the North Dakota Republican Party.

Santorum got 4,510 votes, or 40 percent, of the 11,349 votes cast, which is the highest total recorded for North Dakota Republican presidential caucuses.

Paul got 3,186 votes, or 28 percent. Romney was third with 2,691 votes, or 24 percent, while Newt Gingrich — the only one of the four who did not campaign in North Dakota — got 962 votes, or 8.5 percent.

Romney got 36 percent of the vote in North Dakota's 2008 caucuses, while Paul ran third, with 21 percent. This year, Romney had endorsements from Hoeven, who like Romney is a former governor, as well as from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm, state Auditor Robert R. Peterson and a number of GOP state legislators.

"Rick is not an establishment candidate," Emineth said. "The establishment of Republicans in North Dakota have been Romney people."

Several Bismarck caucus participants who said they backed Santorum questioned the sincerity of Romney's conservative views.

"I don't believe, in the past, that (Romney) has been very conservative," said Melonie Tanous, a Bismarck Web designer. "I honestly don't believe that Mitt Romney is for small government. I think he'd be very much similar to (President Barack) Obama, except for on a few social issues."

Paul had paid far more attention to North Dakota and its 28 delegates than his three GOP rivals. He made three trips to the state in recent months, including a caucus-night visit to Fargo on Tuesday, where he spoke to raucous supporters.

Paul raised more money from North Dakota contributors than his competitors did, Federal Election Commission records say. He took in about $50,000, while Santorum got $5,400, the smallest reported total among GOP candidates still in the presidential race.

Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain, who long ago ditched their presidential bids, had more reported contributions from North Dakota residents than has Santorum.

Marilyn Hochstetler, of Casselton, said she voted for Santorum but had expected Paul to win.

"It really surprises me, but I'm happy," she said of Santorum's victory. "I think he (Santorum) is honest and I really like what he stands for."

Paul supporters seemed to share Hochstetler's surprise but not her glee.

Kyle Kearns, 23, worked a booth in the Fargo caucus site and was so excited about supporting Paul that he paid $8 for a red tie for the occasion. Afterward, he said he felt like he got dressed up for nothing.

"I had more faith in the North Dakota people, I guess," he said after the results were announced. "I think people go for the rhetoric and don't research the issue."

Kevin Cramer, a Santorum supporter and North Dakota Republican U.S. House candidate, said Santorum's extended visit to North Dakota had helped him to garner support, particularly his stop in Tioga.

"It was a great demonstration of interest in what's making North Dakota tick right now, and what kind of potential (increased oil production) has for our country," Cramer said.

Social conservatives, including evangelical Christians and conservative Roman Catholics, were also an important constituency, Cramer said.

"They really appreciate the fact that this is a guy who takes a bold stand on things that matter," Cramer said. "There is a bit of a feeling by a lot of social conservatives that they're a little tired of being kicked around, they're a little bit tired of being told that social issues don't matter."

Dave Kolpack contributed reporting from Fargo, N.D.

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