SHREVEPORT (AP) — Rick Santorum is looking to Louisiana for a much-needed rebound as Republican voters go to the polls Saturday in the state’s GOP primary.
The former Pennsylvania senator is expected to do well in the contest, just a handful of days after a decisive loss to front-runner Mitt Romney in Illinois on Tuesday.
A win over the former Massachusetts governor would serve as a reminder that Romney still struggles among the GOP’s conservative faithful, especially in the South. Santorum beat Romney in primaries in Alabama and Mississippi earlier this month.
But Romney is outpacing Santorum in the race for critical delegates to the Republican National Convention, and he’s been beating Santorum in big, industrial Midwestern states.
“I need your vote, and I want the vote of the people of Louisiana so we can consolidate our lead,” Romney said Friday while campaigning in Shreveport. He told supporters his campaign wants to focus on “raising the money and building the team to defeat someone that needs to be out of office in 2012 and that’s Barack Obama.”
Republicans were voting as President Barack Obama began a trip overseas and the country was focused on the killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Obama made a personal appeal to Martin’s family on Friday, and the GOP candidates all said an investigation into his death was an appropriate course to take.
Romney and Santorum were both campaigning in this northern Louisiana city on Friday, where a large oil and gas industry make energy a top issue in the primary. Both men have been highlighting that on the trail. Also in Louisiana was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has fallen back in polls and has lost other Southern primaries to Santorum.
Santorum spent much of Friday on the defensive, explaining comments he made earlier in the week and insisting he would support the eventual GOP nominee. Still, Santorum says there are similarities between front-runner Romney and Obama that make them indistinguishable on some issues. He caused an intraparty uproar earlier in the week after suggesting he’d prefer a second term for Obama over a Romney presidency.
“Over my dead body would I vote for Barack Obama,” Santorum said as he walked back his original comments less than 24 hours before Louisiana polls were set to open.
The situation underscored Santorum’s challenges, particularly because he faces more difficult territory in the race ahead. He faces increasingly difficult delegate math as Romney continues to win delegates even in states where the popular vote is close.
There are 20 delegates at stake in Louisiana’s primary. They are awarded proportionally to the candidates who receive more than 25 percent of the vote. So a close race would yield just a handful for any of the men in the contest.
Most states divide all the available delegates among the candidates who meet the minimum threshold. Louisiana’s system is strictly proportional, with any leftover delegates designated as uncommitted, meaning they will be fought for at the state convention.
Romney has 563 delegates of the 1,144 necessary to win at the convention, according to an Associated Press tally. Santorum has 263, while Gingrich trails with 135. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has 50.
Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau, in Pineville, La., contributed to this report.