TOPEKA, Kan. — As Republicans gather across Kansas for presidential caucuses Saturday, candidate Rick Santorum and his supporters were looking for a victory to dispel talk that the GOP nomination all but belongs to front-runner Mitt Romney.
The voting at 96 locations across the state determines how the state GOP allocates its 40 delegates to the Republican National Convention. The caucuses come less than a week after Super Tuesday contests across 10 other states solidified Romney's status as leader and Santorum's place as his main rival, and Kansas is voting ahead of key contests next week in the South.
Kansas GOP officials had hoped that between 50,000 and 60,000 people would participate in caucuses statewide. Among them were more than 1,000 people gathering at a Topeka hotel to hear speeches before filling out paper ballots, and another 1,000 or so in Wichita.
The Republican nominee is all but certain to win in Kansas in the November general election. No Democrat has carried the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Republicans hold all statewide and congressional offices, as well as huge majorities in the Legislature.
Many Kansas Republicans saw Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, as likely to win a big share of their delegates in part because Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, skipped campaigning in the state. But Santorum also had the support of many abortion opponents who make up an influential constituency within the state GOP, including leaders of Kansans for Life.
"If there's anybody who's really conservative, it's him," said Alan Locke, a 65-year-old retiree and Southern Baptist from Topeka who attended the caucus in his hometown. "He's a strong evangelical believer, and that's very important for me."
Santorum had three rallies in Kansas in the three days leading up to its caucuses: in Topeka, Wichita and the Kansas City area, all rich in votes. He told supporters in the state that winning in Kansas was important to his efforts to overcome the advantage Romney held in delegates.
"We need Kansas," Santorum told an audience of about 250 people at the rally Friday in Topeka, adding later while greeting supporters, "If we win in Kansas, that's a great boost to us."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul also sought to pick up delegates through a network of volunteers and also made three appearances Friday in the state, drawing about 500 people for what his campaign described as a nonpartisan town hall meeting in Topeka.
John Ellenbecker, a 27-year-old caregiver at the state hospital for developmentally disabled residents in Topeka, said he likes Paul because of his position of pulling back on U.S. military commitments.
"The American people right now, all we have to do is look on the TV, we see nothing but death, destruction. Ron Paul — not about any of that," Ellenbecker said. "He wants to give people the right to choose whether they want to die in war."
The fourth remaining contender for the GOP nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, drew the backing of some conservative legislators but disappointed his Kansas supporters by canceling events in the state to concentrate on campaigning in the South. He represented Georgia in Congress.
Romney has the endorsement of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a former law professor nationally known for helping to draft tough laws against illegal immigration in Alabama and Arizona. Also, Bob Dole, the 88-year-old former Senate majority leader and the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee, urged Kansans to back the front-runner, describing Romney as a "main street conservative."
But some prominent Kansas Republicans aren't endorsing a candidate. Gov. Sam Brownback, a conservative who formerly backed Texas Gov. Rick Perry's failed bid, made brief appearances at both Santorum's and Paul's events Friday in Topeka.
Attending the Wichita caucus before heading to Topeka to vote, Brownback asked how many caucus-goers were "deeply concerned" about the future of the nation — and nearly all hands shot up.
State House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfreid, of Olathe, said he likes Santorum but, "I'm also a realist."
"I think the inevitability of Romney is apparent," he said.
Also contributing to this report was Roxana Hegeman in Wichita.