Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback speaks before the start of a caucus in Wichita,… (Larry W. Smith / EPA )
Reporting from Wichita, Kan. —
Hundreds of Republicans turned out on a crisp, clear Saturday in the state's largest city to cast votes in a presidential contest that could influence the drawn-out race, likely giving Rick Santorum bragging rights as he competes to win Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi.
In a possible preview of the results from the Sedgwick County caucus, Gov. Sam Brownback asked the crowd which candidate they supported. Santorum won the loudest cheers. "Kansas matters this year in the presidential race," he said, describing the caucus as "the largest Republican gathering in the state this year and maybe ever in Sedgwick County."
Santorum also had the most prominent speaker making his case: his wife, Karen, who spoke with her son, John, standing behind her. Santorum emphasized the former Pennsylvania senator's role as a husband, father, home-school teacher, "tickle monster" and man of deep faith. "We say that Rick is the David in this race, and we thank God for so many people out there who are praying for us," she said, explaining that her family believed it was God's will for her husband to run.
She said that her husband had fought to reform welfare and ban partial-birth abortion, and would end Obamacare. With a quavering voice, she noted that they have a daughter with special needs and said, "These kids would be the first to have care withheld."
Appealing to the state party's strong pro-life views, John Axtell, an engineer, stressed that Texas Rep. Ron Paul, an obstetrician, opposes abortion and was endorsed by the president of Operation Rescue, which is based in Wichita. "Dr. Paul is the only candidate we can trust to stop the out-of-control spending and immorality in Washington, D.C.," he said.
Rodney Wren, a high school teacher who spoke for Newt Gingrich, said he was attracted to the former House speaker by his ideas, which Wren said had transformed the nation into one of prosperity. "We do need a man who has been an unabashed advocate for market-oriented reforms," he said.
Mitt Romney, the front-running in the Republican nomination fight, had no representative speaking for him, which led some in the audience to grumble and chortle. The former Massachusetts governor sent a letter, which the county GOP chairman read with little inflection.
Kansas has 40 delegates distributed proportionally by a complicated formula. Voting ends at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time; state party officials said they hope to have complete results by 6 p.m.
The caucus was held in an enormous auditorium with echoing acoustics in the city's flying-saucer-like convention center, which was built to commemorate Wichita’s centennial in 1970. The stage was decorated with red, white, blue and U.S. flag-colored, star-shaped balloons. A political trivia contest filled the time before the candidate speeches began. The prizes for the winners would please anyone who believes the nation's currency should be tied to precious metals: Eisenhower silver dollars and $1 silver certificates.
Joe and Josephine Hallacy voted for years ago for Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who finished first, beating the eventual nominee, Ariz. Sen. John McCain. "He should have won," Josephine said. Both came to the caucus planning to vote for Santorum.
Joe, a 77-year-old retired aircraft seat-belt mechanic, said he was a Paul supporter, but realized he could not win. He said he wants Santorum to get a strong vote in Kansas. "He's got good moral values. I think he understands economics," he said, adding that he hopes Santorum will come around to Paul's view that the Federal Reserve should be abolished.
Josephine, 68, a clerk at a dental insurance company, said, "He's really strong about getting Obamacare out, and I really like that." She also likes that the 53-year-old Santorum is the youngest of the Republican candidates. "He's got young ideas. He's a lot younger than Newt," she said, but she noted that she does admire the 68-year-old Gingrich’s debating skills.
Paul's always jubilant supporters were plentiful in and outside the auditorium, and many made their presence known by wearing Ron Paul T-shirts. Kathy Jackson borrowed one from her son, who she said wears one to high school every day. "I picked the clean one," she joked.
Jackson said her son Jake had brought Paul to her attention. The 17-year-old, whose birthday comes two days too late for him to vote in the caucus, had become so enamored with Paul, she said, that he revamped the computer system the campaign was using in Kansas to track voters.
The 52-year-old computer supplies saleswoman said Paul's values appeal to her. "I like the fact that he never flip-flops, and I believe he has the country’s best interests at heart." Jackson said she would support whoever wins the Republican nomination, although, about the other three contenders, she said, "I'm not so sold or super strong on any of them."
Original source: Strong support for Santorum at one Kansas caucus site