WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum won the Kansas caucuses in a rout on Saturday and Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney showed strength in Wyoming, a weekend prelude to suddenly pivotal Southern showdowns in the week ahead.
Returns from 73 percent of the Kansas precincts showed Santorum with 53 percent support, far outpacing Romney, who had 17 percent. Newt Gingrich had 16 percent and Ron Paul trailed with 13 percent.
Santorum picked up at least 32 of the state's 40 delegates at stake, cutting slightly into Romney's overwhelming's advantage.
Santorum's triumph, coupled with Romney's early advantage in Wyoming, came as the candidates pointed toward Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi that loom as unexpectedly important in the race to pick an opponent to President Barack Obama in the fall. Polls show a close race in both states, particularly Alabama, and Romney, Gingrich and Santorum all added to their television advertising overnight for the race's final days.
Romney, the front-runner by far in the delegate competition, padded his lead overnight when he won all nine delegates on the island of Guam and then again in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Romney had 440 delegates in the AP's count, more than all his rivals combined. Santorum had 213, while Gingrich had 107 and Paul had 46.
A candidate must win 1,144 to clinch the Republican presidential nomination at the national convention in Tampa next August.
In Wyoming, where some counties caucused earlier in the week, Romney had five of the 12 delegates at stake, Santorum had two, Paul had one, and one was uncommitted. Three more remained to be determined in party meetings on the day's calendar.
Romney did not campaign in Kansas, leaving the field to Santorum and Paul.
Gingrich cancelled a scheduled trip to the state late in the week to concentrate on the two Southern primaries on Tuesday.
In sparsely populated Wyoming, there were 15 county conventions during the day to pick six convention delegates.
Kansas drew more attention from the White House hopefuls, but not much more, given its position midway between Super Tuesday and potentially pivotal primaries next Tuesday in Mississippi and Alabama.
Paul and Santorum both campaigned in the state on Friday, and Gov. Sam Brownback appeared with each, without making an endorsement.
In Topeka, Paul told an audience of about 500 that Kansas should be a "fertile field" for his libertarian-leaning views but declined to say how many delegates he hoped to gain.
Santorum, who hopes to drive Gingrich from the race in the coming week, lashed out at Obama and Romney simultaneously in remarks in the Kansas capital city.
"We already have one president who doesn't tell the truth to the American people. We don't need another," he said.
The former Pennsylvania senator told reporters he was confident "that we can win Kansas on Saturday and come into Alabama and Mississippi, and this race should come down to two people."
An aide to Gingrich said earlier in the week that the former House speaker must win both Southern primaries to justify continuing in the campaign.
But Gingrich strongly suggested otherwise on Friday as polls showed a tight three-way contest in Alabama.
"I think there's a fair chance we'll win," he told The Associated Press about the contests in Alabama and Mississippi. "But I just want to set this to rest once and for all. We're going to Tampa."
Romney had no campaign appearances Saturday. The former Massachusetts governor won six of 10 Super Tuesday states earlier in the week, and hopes for a Southern breakthrough in Alabama on Tuesday after earlier losing South Carolina and Georgia to Gingrich.
Associated Press reporters Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington, Thomas Beaumont in Alabama and Phil Elliott, John Hanna and John Milburn in Kansas contributed to this report.