Rick Santorum swept like a prairie fire through Kansas on Saturday — winning all but one of the state’s 105 counties — but he continues to lag well behind front-runner Mitt Romney in the crucial delegate count.
Santorum’s easy caucus win gave him fresh bragging rights as the presidential race turns toward Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday. Late polls showed Romney with a small lead in Mississippi, but Alabama was still a toss-up between Santorum, Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
With all Kansas precincts reporting late Saturday, the former senator from Pennsylvania had 50 percent of the votes cast to Romney’s 20 percent. Gingrich collected just 14 percent, and Ron Paul finished fourth with only 12 percent. The remainder of the votes went to minor candidates, while other ballots were being challenged.
“We’ve had a very, very good day,” Santorum said from Springfield, where he was campaigning ahead of the Show Me State’s caucuses on March 17. “We are going to win Kansas and the vast majority of delegates from Kansas.”
Santorum picked up 33 of the state’s 40 delegates, helping him cut into Romney’s overall national lead. Romney had 446 delegates, according to RealClear Politics — more than all of his rivals combined. With his Kansas win, Santorum has 199 delegates, Gingrich 117 and Paul 61.
To clinch the Republican nomination, a candidate needs 1,144 delegates.
Only 30,832 of Kansas Republicans voted Saturday. The state had 763,640 registered Republicans in 2010.
Santorum’s campaign press secretary, Alice Stewart, said the Kansas results were further evidence that conservatives and tea party leaders were “rallying behind the candidate who’s the true, consistent conservative, and that’s Rick.”
The Kansas results underscored the importance of Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, which now loom as surprisingly important in the ongoing battle to pick a GOP opponent for President Barack Obama. With the race so close in Alabama, candidates increased their television advertising buys.
Romney, however, wasn’t left without a prize over the weekend. His campaign picked up all nine delegates on the western Pacific island of Guam, and another nine in the Northern Mariana Islands.
He also appeared to have an early edge in Wyoming, where some counties caucused earlier in the week. Romney won five of the 12 delegates at stake, while Santorum picked up two, Paul one, and another was uncommitted. Three more remain to be determined in party meetings.
But Santorum was never seriously challenged in Kansas. He won all counties with the exception of Lane County in the far western part of the state. Romney never even visited the Sunflower State, while Gingrich canceled a series of planned events in Johnson County and Wichita only days before the caucuses. Paul made the rounds to caucuses on Saturday, but never gained much traction.
Santorum appeared in Johnson County last Wednesday, when he predicted a statewide win. He pointed out that he had already won in the nearby states of Missouri, Iowa, Colorado and Oklahoma, and he urged Kansans to complete the sweep.
“Just make sure you keep that center of the country bright red strong conservative right here in Kansas,” the former Pennsylvania senator said.
For added insurance, he peppered the state with campaign mailings that featured a photograph with his family and the claim that he has an “unmatched record fighting for conservative values.”
The flier also contained support from leading Republican figures such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who carried the Kansas caucuses in 2008, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
“Rick Santorum has been consistent in protecting the sanctity of life,” Palin was quoted as saying.
Those sentiments were reflected in the comments of voters who cast ballots at some of the seven polling sites scattered around Johnson County.
“I think he best represents the conservative tea party perspective,” said Michael Campbell of Overland Park.
Pam Zubeck of Leawood said she appreciated how Santorum often referred to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in his stump speeches.
“He believes in the foundations of the country,” Zubeck said. “He means what he says.”
“He’s the only conservative in there,” added Bruce Smith of Leawood. “He doesn’t mind taking it to Obama.”
But Romney’s backers cited confidence in their candidate’s ability to defeat the president in November.
“We need somebody strong who can beat Obama,” said Darlene Shull of Prairie Village.
“He’s the only one who can win,” echoed Michael Murphy of Prairie Village.
During Paul’s stop at Shawnee Mission East High School, the Texas congressman told reporters that his candidacy would continue — even though he hasn’t tallied any wins.
“We are going to win some of these states, and we’re going to keep plugging along because we’re going to be right in the ballgame with our delegate count,” he said.