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Posted at 03:38 PM ET, 03/10/2012

Santorum wins Kansas GOP caucuses

WICHITA, Kan. — Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has won the Kansas Republican caucuses, the Associated Press projects, giving his campaign a boost as he seeks to make the case for a one-on-one contest against former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination.

With 76 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum was taking 53 percent in this rural Midwestern state that in many ways is tailor-made for him. The former senator has made his conservative views on social issues a focal point in his bid to win the GOP nod.

Romney was running second with 17 percent; former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was in third place with 16 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who like Santorum had been campaigning hard in the state in recent days, was in fourth place with 13 percent.

Kansas awards 40 national convention delegates based on the caucus results, with 12 district-wide delegates awarded winner-take-all, 25 at-large delegates awarded proportionally based on the statewide vote and three delegate spots reserved for RNC members.

In remarks to supporters in Springfield, Mo., shortly after the race was called, Santorum said he was on his way to winning “the vast majority of delegates” from Kansas.

He also joked to the Show-Me State, where he swept a non-binding straw poll last month, that “it’s not quite as good as what you folks did in Missouri a few weeks back.”

And as a new jobs report on Friday showed the economic recovery picking up steam, Santorum recast the GOP race as a battle over not economic issues but over which candidate is best-equipped to face Obama on foreign affairs and the national health care reform law.

“We’re not electing a CEO; we’re electing a commander-in-chief and there’s one person who has experience doing that,” Santorum said. He added later in his speech: “The issue may not be jobs and the economy. It may be something more fundamentally important: having someone who stood up for something called freedom.”

In many ways, Kansas represents the broader difficulty that Romney faces as he seeks to solidify his front-runner status in the Republican presidential race.

It is a deep-red state that in 2008 voted for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R), a social-conservative favorite, even after Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was on his way to securing the nomination.

This time around, Santorum is seeking to claim the mantle of the social conservative in the race, and his Kansas victory could give him momentum as his supporters argue that Gingrich should drop out to make way for a two-man Romney-Santorum battle.

Even as he trails far behind in the delegate count, Santorum made the case to reporters at a Friday night event in Wichita that he still has a clear path to the nomination.

In a tacit acknowledgment that Santorum was favored in the state, both Romney and Gingrich had announced in recent days that they would bypass Kansas in favor of campaigning in Alabama and Mississippi, which hold their primaries next week.

And in downtown Wichita, at one of the largest Republican caucuses in the country, signs of Santorum’s popularity — and of the Romney camp’s apparent disengagement — abounded.

Santorum had dispatched his wife, Karen, and his son John to address an estimated 2,000 Republicans at the Century II Exhibition Hall.

Many of those caucus-goers leapt to their feet after Karen Santorum delivered an address during which she choked up as she talked about the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Bella, and hailed her husband as a candidate who is “strong and courageous” and “is not a well-oiled weathervane.”

By contrast, not only did Romney not visit Kansas, but his campaign was the only one that failed to send a surrogate to represent him at one of the state’s key caucus sites.

Sedgwick County Republican Party Chairman Bob Dool, who chaired the caucuses and remains neutral in the race, announced at the Saturday morning caucus in Wichita that he would instead read aloud a letter that Romney’s campaign had sent to the state in place of a surrogate.

“Loser!” yelled one man in the crowd.

Santorum also received the wildest applause — a 10-second ovation — when Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who remains neutral in the race, asked the caucus-goers to show their support for each of the GOP candidates.

Even though Romney had announced days ago that he would not be campaigning in the state, some people at the Wichita caucus site said they were surprised by the lack of any presence at all by his campaign.

“Well, I would say it probably wouldn’t help,” Dool, the county chairman, said of the candidate’s lack of a surrogate. “We had accepted up until yesterday anybody to speak on behalf of a candidate as long as they had an authorization from that candidate. We didn’t receive one from Romney. He did send a letter in to the state, which we read. But apparently, he chose to go to Guam today. I understand he picked up seven votes there today.”

Dool was referring to Romney’s Friday-night win in Guam, where he won all nine of the territory’s delegates. Romney’s son Matt visited Guam in recent days on his dad’s behalf.

Bob White, a 74-year-old retiree and Santorum supporter from Wichita, said it was “awfully bad that Romney didn’t send any representation other than the boring letter.”

And Shirley McKinney, 67, and Carol Meyer, 61, both Santorum supporters, said they were “impressed” by Karen Santorum’s speech and that they, too, were shocked by Romney’s absence.

“I felt like him not having a representative and not coming, I just think he just marked Kansas off the list,” McKinney said. “I think he just didn’t care.”

Even so, they both said they would back Romney, albeit reluctantly, if he goes on to win the nomination.

“If he were to be the nominee, I feel that — I don’t really, really support him, but anybody is better” than Obama, McKinney said. “We’ve just got to get rid of Obama. He’s just not good for America.”

Romney’s campaign did have a table set up at the Wichita caucus site, as did the other three campaigns. But the woman staffing it, retired schoolteacher Mary Willoughby, said she was not sent by the campaign, but rather tapped by the local organizers as she entered the caucus site.

“I’m the only one that volunteered for the Romney table,” she said. “And I was supposed to help check in, and they didn’t have my name on the list for some reason as I volunteered for that. I had a [Romney] sticker on. So they said, ‘Well, do you want to just man this table here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to.’ Because I’m a big Romney supporter.”

If anyone dropped the ball, Willoughby said, it was probably “the guy in Topeka” who sent buttons and stickers down to Wichita to be displayed but apparently did not arrange for anyone to man the table.

“Believe me, Romney is super, super, super organized,” Willoughby said.

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By  |  03:38 PM ET, 03/10/2012

 
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