Rick Santorum picked up a solid win in the caucus in conservative Kansas on Saturday, a step forward as he rushes to block Mitt Romney's Republican presidential nomination march.
In the latest contest of the rollercoaster Republican presidential race, Christian conservative Santorum won Kansas after Romney took sweeping wins thousands of miles away in Pacific US territories Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
"I congratulate Rick Santorum on winning the Kansas caucus. I also thank all of our candidates for their dedication to ending Barack Obama's failed presidency," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement about polls in Kansas, nicknamed the "reddest of the red" states in the US 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 Romney's Kansas campaign headquarters, told AFP.
"We think that the results of the caucus here will put a surge into Santorum's campaign."
The anti-abortion candidate's wife, Karen Santorum, also told supporters he was a husband and father who has "been with me every step of the way" in rearing and homeschooling seven children, including a girl with disabilities. She said her husband is "prayerful and guided by Christian principles" including "service to our dear Lord and others."
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, though 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 was 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.
Though 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 Roman 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.
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.
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.
In Mississippi a poll by Rasmussen Reports gave Romney 35 percent support, with Santorum and Gingrich both on 27 percent.
"I just don't think he has the enthusiastic base that he would need to pull those out," he said.
Source: AFP Global Edition