TOPEKA, Kan. — Rick Santorum overwhelmingly won the Kansas Republican presidential caucuses on Saturday, bolstering his claim that front-runner Mitt Romney hasn't locked up the GOP nomination.
Santorum appeared on track to pick up most if not all of the state's 40 delegates according to mid-afternoon vote tallies that put the former Pennsylvania senator with more than 50 percent of the vote. Romney, who didn't campaign in Kansas, hovered just above the 20 percent threshold needed to capture delegates.
"We've had a very, very good day in our neighboring state of Kansas," Santorum told several hundred people at a rally in Springfield, Mo. He called the win "comfortable" and said he was looking forward to claiming "the vast majority of delegates."
Santorum enjoyed support from some small-government conservatives in Kansas and, more importantly, many abortion opponents who make up a core constituency of the state GOP, including leaders of Kansans for Life. He portrayed himself as the non-establishment candidate, telling locals that their caucuses were crucial ahead of other post-Super Tuesday contests in the South.
"If there's anybody who's really conservative, it's him. He's a strong evangelical believer, and that's very important for me," said Alan Locke, a 65-year-old retiree and Southern Baptist from Topeka who voted for Santorum in his hometown. "I like it that he's pro-life, that he is pro-life from before birth until the grave."
With reports from 93 percent of the 96 caucus sites reporting by mid-day Saturday, Santorum had 52 percent of the vote compared to Romney's 21 percent. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 14 percent, while Texas Congressman Ron Paul captured 13 percent.
Paul had three campaign events Friday, while Gingrich cancelled his Kansas events to focus on Southern states after he won his native Georgia on Tuesday.
The GOP nominee is all but certain to win Kansas in the November general election because of the state's strong GOP leanings. A Democrat hasn't carried the state since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Republicans hold all statewide and congressional offices along with large legislative majorities.
Josh Kelton, a 36-year-old Wichita engineer, said he had not made up his mind to vote for Santorum until he went to hear him at a rally Friday and Santorum's wife at the caucus Saturday in Wichita. Kelton's wife and five children were with him at the caucus.
"We can relate to them," Kelton said. "They have the same values we do."
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, received a late boost in Kansas when political icon Bob Dole, the 88-year-old former U.S. Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee, urged his fellow Kansans to back the front-runner. Dole described Romney as a "main street conservative."
Romney also was endorsed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a conservative former law professor known for helping draft tough illegal immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama. Kobach has said Romney is more conservative than he's been portrayed.
Kobach said Romney's decision not to campaign in Kansas hurt him, but Kobach said it's significant that Romney still was on track to pick up delegates.
"I would call that a success for Romney," he said.
Connie Kimble, a 67-year-old U.S. Veterans Administration worker from Topeka, wore a Romney sticker as she voted for him. She acknowledged feeling torn between him and Santorum.
"But it's that thing — OK, who do I think probably stands the best chance against Obama?" she said. "And I think it probably is Romney."
However, Kansas Republicans have shown an independent streak in the past. In February 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain already was the GOP's presumed presidential nominee, but former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee trounced McCain in the state's caucuses.
Roxana Hegeman in Wichita and David Lieb in Springfield, Mo., also contributed to this report.
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