WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum looked for a win in Louisiana's primary Saturday to boost his Republican presidential campaign while front-runner Mitt Romney braced for an expected loss.
No matter who wins the state, the overall trajectory of the fight for the party's nomination was unlikely to change. Santorum still dramatically lags in the hunt for delegates to the GOP's summertime nominating convention, and Romney remains the prohibitive favorite to become the nominee.
Even so, Santorum made clear he would press on beyond Louisiana and spent Saturday campaigning in next-up Wisconsin, which votes April 3 and represents one of his last chances to beat Romney in a Midwestern state.
"Stand for your principles. Don't compromise. Don't sell America short," Santorum implored Wisconsin voters in Milwaukee, telling them that he expected their state to be "the turning point in this race."
In an unmistakable jab at Romney, Santorum added: "Don't make the mistake that Republicans made in 1976. Don't nominate the moderate. When you do, we lose." It was a reference to Ronald Reagan losing the 1976 Republican nomination to incumbent President Gerald Ford, and Democrat Jimmy Carter winning the White House.
Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks showed that the bad economy was the top issue for Louisiana voters, and most were gloomy about prospects for a recovery, saying they felt the economy was getting worse instead of better. While some national surveys suggest Americans are feeling optimistic about economic improvement, just one in eight Republican primary voters said they thought a recovery was underway.
Beating President Barack Obama in the fall was the most important consideration for about four of every ten Louisiana voters.
The former Pennsylvania senator badly needed a rebound after a decisive Illinois loss to Romney earlier in the week that moved party stalwarts to rally around the former Massachusetts governor. Many urged Santorum and fellow candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to drop out of the race.
Both refused, and campaigned aggressively in Louisiana in hopes that a victory there would justify them continuing their bids despite Republican worries that the drawn-out nomination fight could hurt the party's chances this fall against President Barack Obama. The Democratic incumbent faces no serious primary challenge and his re-election campaign already is well under way.
Romney barely campaigned in Louisiana, though his allies spent on TV ads there. Instead, Romney was looking past the results and toward the general election.
"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."
Romney is far ahead in the delegate count and on pace to reach the necessary 1,144 delegates before the party's convention in August.
After the Illinois primary March 20, Romney had 563 delegates, according to an Associated Press tally. Santorum had 263, while Gingrich trailed with 135. Texas Rep. Ron Paul had 50.
Santorum looked to add another Southern state to his win column after beating Romney in Alabama and Mississippi, raising questions about Romney's ability to connect with the party's conservative base, particularly in its Southern heart.
In the run up to Saturday, Santorum found himself on the defensive after suggesting he'd prefer a second term for Obama over a Romney presidency. Santorum was all but forced to walk back those comments, saying less than 24 hours before Louisiana polls opened that "over my dead body would I vote for Barack Obama."
Romney also faced trouble this week when a top aide compared the switch from a primary to a general election campaign to an Etch A Sketch toy, suggesting earlier campaign positions could be easily wiped away. Most Louisiana voters said they weren't concerned with the comment, with only about one in five in exit polls calling this week's Etch A Sketch controversy an important factor in their vote.
Louisiana's complicated delegate rules meant that Santorum could walk away with a handful of delegates even if he won the state. That's because even though there were 20 delegates at stake Saturday, they are awarded proportionally to the candidates who receive more than 25 percent of the vote.
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.
None of the candidates remained in the state on Saturday, with Santorum and Gingrich moving on to Pennsylvania. Santorum also campaigned in Wisconsin. Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul had no public events Saturday.
Like Santorum, Gingrich showed no inclination to leave the race ahead of the August convention. "There's no incentive to get out as long as there's an opportunity to be there if it gets unlocked," Gingrich told reporters after delivering a Saturday speech to the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, the state's largest annual gathering of conservatives.
The next key fight comes Tuesday in Wisconsin. Romney's campaign is airing TV ads in the state, and his super PAC allies have plowed more than $2 million into TV advertising there.
Also voting April 3 are Maryland and the District of Columbia. There are 95 delegates combined at stake in the three contests.
Santorum is not on the ballot in Washington, D.C., but is ahead in opinion polls in Maryland.
Elliott reported from Milwaukee. Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Camp Hill, Pa., contributed to this report.