Voters in conservative Kansas trooped to polls Saturday in the latest contest of the rollercoaster Republican presidential race, with Rick Santorum eyeing a solid win as he aims to block Mitt Romney's nomination march.
Romney was enjoying the momentum of two sweeping Saturday victories thousands of miles away in Pacific US territories Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, but he can't count on such support in Kansas, known as the "reddest of the red" states in the American heartland.
With 63 percent of the ballots counted after caucuses closed, former Pennsylvania senator Santorum was leading handily with more than 53 percent of the vote, compared with about 17 percent for Romney, 16 percent for former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and 13 percent for congressman Ron Paul.
While Romney is the national frontrunner, there is still no definitive candidate to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November election, and all is to play for in Kansas.
"We're pretty excited. I think this shows that Kansas is the cornerstone for true conservative America," Brandon Rubkin, director of Santorum's Kansas campaign headquarters, told AFP.
"We think that the results of the caucus here will put a surge into Santorum's campaign."
It was Romney who earned a slight nudge earlier Saturday, saying in a statement he was "honored" to win all nine delegates in Guam, as well as the nine in the Northern Marianas, although official vote tallies from the territories were not immediately available.
Voters in the US Virgin Islands were also due to select their favored Republican candidate on Saturday, and Romney is expected to do well there also.
But ultra-conservative Kansas is an unlikely match for him. The former governor of liberal Massachusetts stayed away, focusing instead on upcoming primaries Tuesday in the key southern states of Alabama and Mississippi.
Although Romney consolidated his pole position in this week's slew of votes, he failed to knock either Santorum or Gingrich out of the race. Paul, a Libertarian Texas representative, is also hanging on, though he has yet to win a single contest.
While some Republican leaders have endorsed Romney, and experts have stressed that Santorum's views on abortion and gay marriage would alienate millions of moderates and independent voters in the general election, the Catholic candidate's supporters in heavily evangelical Kansas said his faith-based positions were vital.
"I'm also Catholic. That gives me confidence he's going to vote the same way I would," said wedding consultant Jenna Donovan, 21.
Romney leads the pack overall, having won more than a third of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination, after 25 contests in the state-by-state Republican race.
Kansas's Republican governor Sam Brownback showed up at Paul's and Santorum's speeches on Friday, but did not endorse either.
He said he might endorse one of the contenders after the vote and predicted that the caucus, with 40 delegates at stake, could make a difference.
"It will help to build momentum, and nobody has this won, so momentum's pretty important," Brownback said.
Big prizes are also at stake on Tuesday, when Alabama, with 50 delegates, Mississippi (40) and Hawaii (20) go to the polls.
"But, stylistically, Gingrich with his long history in the South maybe is a little more appealing than Santorum's Yankee charm from Pennsylvania."
Two small polls released Friday predicted a tight race in Alabama between Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, narrowly giving the edge to Gingrich, who has said Alabama and Mississippi are "must wins" for him.
In Mississippi a poll by Rasmussen Reports gave Romney 35 percent support, with Santorum and Gingrich both on 27 percent.
At a rally Friday in Jackson, Mississippi, Romney went on the attack against Obama. "We've gone from 'yes we can' (in 2008) to 'it's not my fault'. 'It's not my fault' is his new campaign slogan," Romney said.
"I just don't think he has the enthusiastic base that he would need to pull those out," he said.
Source: AFP Global Edition