Rick Santorum supporters wait to hear his wife, Karen, speak at caucus in… (Larry W. Smith, European…)
Reporting from Wichita, Kan. — Rick Santorum scored a resounding victory Saturday in the Kansas caucuses, winning more than half of the votes, claiming most of the delegates and bolstering his credibility as he turns to other states with similar GOP electorates.
Facing crucial tests in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday and in Missouri on Saturday, Santorum hopes to diminish Newt Gingrich so he can compete head-to-head with Mitt Romney for the party's presidential nomination.
But even as Santorum added more delegates to his total, Romney collected almost as many from smaller caucuses Saturday, leaving Santorum still more than 200 behind.
"We've had a very good day in our neighboring state of Kansas," Santorum told supporters at a rally in Missouri, where he spent the day campaigning. Santorum handily won Missouri's primary last month, but the state's delegates will be awarded in upcoming caucuses.
Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said Kansas shows that voters are responding to his appeal. "This is a great win for the campaign and further evidence that conservatives and tea party loyalists are uniting behind Rick as the true, consistent conservative in this race," he said.
Santorum won 33 of the 40 Kansas delegates; seven went to Romney. But Romney gained 22 delegates Saturday from Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands. He also added seven delegates, and Santorum took three, in the Wyoming caucuses, which concluded Saturday.
"In what was hyped as a big opportunity for Rick Santorum, he again fell short of making a dent in Mitt Romney's already large delegate lead," the Romney campaign said in a statement.
In Kansas, Santorum received 51% of the votes, Romney 21%, Gingrich 14% and Texas Rep. Ron Paul13%. Romney and Gingrich had downplayed their chances in the deep-red state, where abortion remains a touchstone issue and caucusgoers tend to be the state's most conservative voters. Gingrich canceled half a dozen events in the state last week. Santorum visited Wednesday and Saturday.
Paul, who campaigned Saturday in the suburbs near Kansas City, told reporters that he had no intention of exiting the race.
Santorum's triumph did not surprise Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University who has written books on politics in Kansas and the South.
"To me, this is more about Gingrich vs. Santorum, and this is another nail in Newt Gingrich's coffin," he said. "He is not the favored candidate among evangelicals; Santorum is. Eventually this will pare down to a two-man race. The only thing Santorum has to worry about is, will it be soon enough."
Aistrup said Alabama and Mississippi were do-or-die for Gingrich, who moved to Georgia as a teenager and for two decades represented a district in the state in Congress. He has won only two states: Georgia and neighboring South Carolina.
"The only thing that Newt has over Rick is, frankly, the fact that he's from the South, and maybe that might not be enough," Aistrup said. "If he can't win those two Southern states, his candidacy is gone. He has nothing else to go for."
Gingrich, who has repeatedly pledged to take his campaign all the way to the Republican presidential convention in Tampa, Fla., campaigned in Alabama on Saturday. Playing on his Southern ties, he mocked Romney for saying he was learning to say "y'all" and like grits.
Kansas held caucuses at 96 sites. More than 30,800 Republicans voted, 50% more than in 2008, when Arizona Sen. John McCainhad essentially wrapped up the GOP nomination. Kansans, however, went their own conservative way, voting for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Sedgwick County's caucus was held at Wichita's flying-saucer-like convention center, where 2,978 voters cast ballots. They dropped them through slots cut in boxes wrapped in white paper and red tape, and about 30 red-shirted party workers counted them by hand.
Santorum had the most prominent speaker on hand to make his case: his wife, Karen. She 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.
Voters who chose Santorum seemed drawn by his steadfast religious and political views. Jody Dendurent, a 40-year-old civil engineer, said she agreed with him on abortion, the central role of the Constitution and the dignity of women as shown by how he treats his wife. "I trust that when he makes a decision, he's going to, No. 1, look for God for wisdom," she said.
Romney's campaign did not bother to find a speaker for the state's largest caucus gathering, drawing snorts and jeers from some of the hundreds of voters in the auditorium. The former Massachusetts governor sent a letter, which the county party chairman read without inflection.
Paul's always eager supporters were plentiful inside and out. To get to the caucus, Republicans had to brave a phalanx waving signs, urging a vote for liberty and ominously warning: "Santorum wants to force you to wear sweater vests for the rest of your life."
Kathy Jackson, a 52-year-old computer supplies saleswoman, said Paul's values appealed 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. But, thinking about the other candidates, she said, "I'm not so sold or super-strong on any of them."