Santorum wins Louisiana primary

March 24, 2012

Rick Santorum won the Louisiana primary on Saturday, boosting his claim as the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican Party even as his odds of beating Mitt Romney in the overall delegate race appear slim.

With nearly 95 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum led Romney 49 percent to 27 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was third with 16 percent and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was taking 6 percent.

Santorum said in remarks from Wisconsin, which is one of the next states in the GOP nomination contest, that his victory shows his campaign should keep going.

“This race is long and far from over,” Santorum said.

Romney’s defeat represented the latest setback in the South for the front-runner, who has lost primaries in six Southern states this month and also lost a key primary earlier this year in South Carolina.

Santorum, meanwhile, can again claim momentum based on a strong showing in a heavily conservative state. He has won seven contests for the Republican presidential nomination this month, including five in the South.

Nonetheless, Romney’s other victories, especially a big win Tuesday in the Illinois primary, appear to have cemented his status as the likely nominee. After taking several large, industrial states in the Midwest, Romney has enjoyed a new level of acclaim from Republican leaders in recent days, including the endorsement of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, as Santorum and Newt Gingrich have struggled to clear a path to the nomination.

Gingrich congratulated the night’s winner but emphasized that he was still in the game.

“Rick Santorum deserves credit for coming in first in Louisiana,” Gingrich said. “I am very grateful for the thousands of Louisianians who voted for me tonight. The theme of $2.50 per gallon of gasoline or less, and an American energy policy that ensures no American president will ever again bow to a Saudi king were clearly popular . . . This is clearly still an open race. So . . . I will carry our solution-oriented campaign to Tampa” — site of the Republican convention in August.

The results in Louisiana illustrated Romney’s chief remaining weakness: his standing among the most conservative voters.

Outside a polling place in Covington, La., voters had sharp words for the GOP front-runner.

“I think he’s going to be another Obama,” Bobby Massa, 47, a warehouse worker, said of Romney. “I just get the sick feeling that he’ll continue what Obama’s been doing.”

Massa said he voted for Gingrich but would “most likely” support Romney in November if he were the GOP nominee.

“Gingrich is a straight shooter, and Romney just works around the truth till he gets what he wants,” Massa said.

Covington is the seat of St. Tammany Parish, where more than 75 percent of voters favored Republican Sen. John McCain in 2008. Many voters said the nomination fight has gone on too long.

“I think these guys need to put their egos in the closet and get out,” said Catherine Farrish, 60, a naturopath. Farrish said she considered voting for Romney so the race would end quicker. Instead, she said, she supported Santorum because “he scares me the least.”

“I’m not in love with any of them,” she said.

Jules Richard, 67, an accountant, used a backhanded compliment to describe his feelings about Romney.

“I think he’s the best politician in the race,” Richard said. “He gives people what they want to hear.” Richard said he voted for Santorum but would have no problem supporting Romney in the general election. “I voted for Santorum just to annoy Romney, really,” he said.

Judy Boone, 58, an X-ray technician who voted at an elementary school in the suburb of Metairie on Saturday morning, said she would grudgingly vote for Romney if he wins the nomination — even though she objects to the health-care policy he spearheaded as governor of Massachusetts, which has been compared to President Obama’s health-care act. Boone said such legislation threatens to make the United States “like Canada.”

Linda Gibson, 66, is a retired nurse from Shreveport and, like Santorum, a Catholic. She was voting for Santorum, even if it was a losing cause in the overall race.

“I will support the GOP candidate no matter what. But Romney is a RINO [Republican in-name-only],” Gibson said. “I feel like Santorum needs to go to the end, because people are still changing their minds. But I’m not going to support Romney now, because I’ve got to vote my conscience.”

The perception that Romney is a RINO may have crystallized last week after a senior Romney adviser appeared on television and suggested that his candidate could reshape his campaign once the general election begins, comparing it to the children’s Etch a Sketch toy.

Santorum and Gingrich both hit the Etch a Sketch theme hard on the campaign trail, toting the toy as a prop to rehash doubts about Romney’s commitment to conservative causes. The gaffe may have hurt Romney in the days that followed. While he trailed Santorum by single digits in primaries last week in Alabama and Mississippi, his loss Saturday appeared as though it may be bigger.

Exit polls showed about one in five voters said the Etch a Sketch flap played an important role in their choice. The polls also showed more than four in 10 voters describing themselves as “very conservative” — one of the highest numbers of any state to vote so far — and Santorum was winning about twice as much of those votes as Romney.

While Romney continues to struggle with conservatives, though, Santorum still trails by a wide margin in the delegate race, and Saturday’s primary in Louisiana won’t do much to change that.

Just 20 of the state’s 46 delegates to the Republican National Convention were up for grabs based on Saturday’s results, and they will be split proportionally between Santorum and Romney as long as Romney clears 25 percent of the vote in final results.

The latest projections from both the Associated Press and Republican National Committee indicate Romney leads the delegate count by about 300 delegates. Because Romney appeared Saturday night that he would clear that 25 percent mark, Santorum likely won’t shave more than a few delegates off Romney’s lead.

Romney is now almost exactly halfway to winning the 1,144 delegates he needs to secure the Republican nomination.

Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley called the win a “stepping stone” and cited Romney’s efforts to compete in the state. “He was competing there, and so I think this proves that this thing has some legs.”

Romney, though, should have an easier time winning delegates in the coming weeks. Louisiana was the last state from the Deep South to hold its primary, and it’s also the last state in the nominating process that was required by party rules to allocate its delegates proportionally.

Starting in April, states can begin awarding their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, which provides for bigger swings in the delegate race and could help Romney expand his lead more quickly. In addition, the majority of contests in April take place in the Northeastern part of the country, including Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island. Romney has won every state in that region so far.

The next contests will be held April 3 in Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., before a three-week break.

Staff writers Ed O’Keefe and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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