WASHINGTON (AP) — Rick Santorum looked for a win in Louisiana's primary Saturday to sustain his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The former Pennsylvania senator badly needed a rebound after a decisive loss to front-runner Mitt Romney earlier in the week that moved party stalwarts to rally around the former Massachusetts governor and urge Santorum to drop out of the race.
Santorum expected to do well in this conservative Southern state. He also beat Romney in Alabama and Mississippi, raising questions about Romney's ability to connect with the party's conservative base, particularly in its Southern heart. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich braced for yet another loss in the South, his home region.
Santorum on Saturday pointed out that a Louisiana victory would give him as many contests — 11 — as former President Ronald Reagan won in his 1976 race.
"Don't make the mistake that Republicans made in 1976. Don't nominate the moderate. When you do, we lose," Santorum said. Reagan lost a fight for the 1976 Republican nomination to incumbent President Gerald Ford, and Democrat Jimmy Carter won the White House.
But as Louisiana voted, the trajectory of the overall contest looked the same — and Romney remained the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination. 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, while Santorum still has significant ground to catch him. Even before polls opened Saturday, 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."
After his Illinois victory on 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.
Louisiana's complicated delegate rules made winning the primary less valuable. There were 20 delegates at stake Saturday, but 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.
Santorum, Romney and Gingrich all campaigned in Louisiana ahead of voting. 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.
Though he led in polls in the state, Santorum spent much of his last day campaigning here Friday on the defensive. 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 opened.
Gingrich, meanwhile, 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, where Santorum was already campaigning Saturday. 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.
Santorum said Saturday he expected the primary there to be "the turning point in this race." He urged Wisconsin voters to "stand for your principles. Don't compromise. Don't sell America short."
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.