Louisiana primary: Last chance for Rick Santorum to stay viable in the race?

Polls show that Rick Santorum is headed for a ‘commanding win’ in Saturday's Louisiana primary. But front-runner Mitt Romney is likely to pick up delegates as well.

Ben Corda/AP
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum autographs a "Don't Quit" sign as he campaigns in West Monroe, La., on Thursday.

Louisiana Republicans go to the polls Saturday, giving Rick Santorum what may be his last best chance to stay a viable candidate in the GOP presidential primaries.

It’s become essentially a two-man race, with Mitt Romney way ahead in the delegate count and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul hanging on but with no hope of winning the nomination.

Yet Mr. Romney has not won a single Southern state, aside from Virginia (where neither Messrs. Santorum nor Gingrich qualified for the ballot) and Florida (which is not a classic Southern state). And in two key states he did win – Florida and Illinois – he lost those parts of the states that are most like the South.

Thus going into the Louisiana primary, Santorum seems to have a solid edge.

A Rasmussen Reports poll taken Wednesday has Santorum ahead of Romney by a comfortable 12 points (43 to 31 percent, with Gingrich trailing a distant third with 16 points and Representative Paul way back at 5).

Other surveys echo those results.

“Rick Santorum is headed for a commanding win in Louisiana on Saturday,” declares Public Policy Polling, based on its survey taken Wednesday and Thursday. “We find him with 42 percent to 28 percent for Mitt Romney, 18 percent for Newt Gingrich, 8 percent for Ron Paul, and 2 percent for Buddy Roemer.”

What’s more, PPP finds, “conservative voters appear to be abandoning Gingrich for Santorum.” With Gingrich out of the race, “Santorum would have a 22 point lead, 53-31, over Romney here with Paul at 11%.”

Polls by Magellan Strategies and the American Research Group give Santorum a double-digit lead as well.

As has been the case in previous primaries and caucuses, Romney holds his own in urban and suburban areas of Louisiana, but falls way behind in rural areas as well as among tea partyers, Evangelicals, and Republicans who identify themselves as “very conservative.”

"We think we're going to do well here," Santorum told the Associated Press. “This state,... of all the states in the Deep South, I think matches up with us well. It's a very conservative state.”

He added, "We're going to do better even than Mississippi and Alabama.”

On that point, Romney seems to agree. He has not campaigned much in Louisiana or spent much on television ads there, and he seems to be conceding the state to Santorum.

"We hope to do well wherever we are on the ballot, but we know we aren't going to win everywhere,” Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho told the AP. “We are hoping to pull as many delegates as we can out of Louisiana.”

Romney could continue to add delegates under Louisiana’s proportional distribution. Only 20 of the state’s 46 delegates will be chosen in Saturday’s primary, divvied up among any candidates who receive at least 25 percent of the vote. The rest will be chosen at a state party convention, going uncommitted to the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. (which means they could join a Romney bandwagon).

Romney heads into Saturday’s Louisiana primary with notable support from two important party figures.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, representing establishment Republicans, formally endorsed Romney.

Perhaps more significant, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina – the closest thing to a tea party leader in Congress – had very positive things to say about Romney this week.

"I am not only comfortable with Romney; I'm excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee,” he told reporters. “His leadership skills, the fact he hasn't lived in his life in Washington – there is a lot to like there."

Meanwhile, Gallup reported Friday, Romney's national support among Republican voters “has surged in recent days.”

Gallup’s daily tracking poll has Romney at 40 percent – 14 points ahead of Santorum’s 26 points. It's the first time a candidate has reached this level in the campaign.

“With a more substantial lead in preferences, the coming days will reveal whether Republicans finally coalesce around Romney as their preferred nominee, or whether the campaign takes another turn and weakens his front-runner status,” writes Jeffrey M. Jones of Gallup.

Louisiana will help answer that question. For Santorum, it’s a chance to strengthen his position before the campaign moves into April with a slew of primaries in the North, where (except for his home state of Pennsylvania, perhaps) it’s likely to be a harder fight for him.

So far, Romney has accumulated 563 convention delegates – more than Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul combined (448). But he still needs 581 to reach the 1,144 necessary to win the nomination.

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