NEW ORLEANS — Saturday's Republican presidential primary in Louisiana won't be a game changer but the state party chief doesn't see how it can fail to make some news, no matter who comes out on top.
Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul all campaigned in the state on Friday and Louisiana GOP chairman Roger Villere said that more was at stake than the handful of delegates the candidates could collect.
Villere said the winner — whether it is perceived front-runner Romney or one of the other three candidates still standing — can claim to have momentum as the campaign continues.
Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. While the primary is the marquee issue on the ballot, there are local elections scattered about Louisiana.
"It would be big news if Romney wins — a breakthrough in the South," Villere said. A Santorum win would strengthen his challenge. A Gingrich victory could be yet another revival of his campaign. "Newt could say 'I'm back.'"
At a middle school polling precinct in Metairie, roughly three dozen voters had cast ballots in the first four hours polls were open.
Marianne Gabb, 54, an administrative assistant for a property management company, said she voted for Santorum because he is a family man. Santorum is the father of seven.
"I come from a family of six and I can tell you it is no easy task," she said. "It just shows commitment, shows he can stay the course."
Gabb said she believes Santorum is the best candidate for the party because he is "truly conservative ... and can work both sides."
Martha Guthrie, a 75-year-old artist, voted for Mitt Romney and expressed reservations about Santorum's religious rhetoric.
"I just don't want somebody so far to the right that they are going to fall off the edge of the table. I think that is where Santorum is," she said.
A self-described moderate Republican, Guthrie also said she worries that a bruising drawn-out primary will ruin the GOP's chances in November.
"I think it's ridiculous. Everybody is sick and tired of it. The Republicans are beating each other up so the Democrats don't have to even lift a finger," she said.
There are 776,567 registered Republicans eligible to vote in the primary. Republicans make up less than a third of the total electorate in Louisiana but the state has become reliably Republican in elections. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal won easy re-election last fall, and all statewide government officials are Republicans. Five of six U.S. House members are Republican. The junior senator, David Vitter, is a Republican and the GOP has always given three-term incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, a lifelong Democrat, a strong challenge.
The state went solidly for John McCain in 2008 and President Barack Obama's approval ratings in the state are low.
Against that backdrop, Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul all made appearances in the state over the past week. "We're getting a lot of face time with the presidential candidates," Villere said, acknowledging that in the past few election cycles, that hasn't been the case.
The state will send a total of 46 delegates to the party's national convention in late summer, but only 20 delegates will be at stake in the primary.
Those 20 delegates will be allocated proportionally among candidates who get more than 25 percent of the vote in Saturday's primary. If no candidate gets 25 percent, the party says, the 20 delegates remain uncommitted.
An additional 23 delegates will be selected at the state Republican convention in June. The final three delegates are Republican National Committee members from Louisiana, otherwise known as superdelegates.
Associated Press writer Michael Kunzelman contributed to this report.