Santorum Eyes Win in Bayou Primary Battle

GOP voters seem to be convinced Rick Santorum is the true conservative running on the Republican ticket.

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Louisiana's Republican presidential primary is Rick Santorum's to lose, according to recent polls and local experts. But even though the prognosis of Saturday's contest is the same as it was when nearby Southern states Alabama and Mississippi held their primaries, there's a lot about the Bayou state that separates it from previous contests.

For one thing, many conservatives in the state won't be voting in the primary.

"We have a lot of people who in a presidential or gubernatorial election who vote Republican but are still registered Democrats, so those people won't be participating in this process," says Jason Dore, executive director of the Republican Party of Louisiana. Despite being one of the reddest states in the country, only about one-third of Louisiana voters are registered Republican, Dore adds.

"Eventually, there will be a large change in party registration," says Thomas Langston, a political science professor at Tulane University. "But as things stand, registered Republican voters are still a relatively small group and these are red meat, red state voters."

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]

That's why it should be Santorum, and not GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, who will carry the day, Langston says.

"A state which Barack Obama lost by 14 percentage points is never going to turn to a moderate from Massachusetts," he says.

Louisiana also doesn't ascribe to the typical urban-rural cultural lines found in other states, particularly in the South, Langston adds.

"Louisiana is more complicated because it's got distinct regions which transcend the urban-rural and suburban divide," he says. "The city of Shreveport is vastly different from the city of Lafayette, which is different from the city of New Orleans; in the suburbs, the same thing is true."

Langston described three sections of the Bayou state – the north, where many protestants and 'Bible belt' voters live; the south, consisting basically of New Orleans, which is Democratic and populous enough to ensure a Democratic senator like Mary Landrieu can win office; and finally, what he called "Cajun country." That's where the swing voters live, according to Langston.

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"It's heavily Catholic, with a touch of the Bible belt and, by golly, you just never know which way Acadiana is going to go," he says. "You can mobilize them on economic populist issues."

Langston says he expects a Santorum victory not because of any political differences between the candidates, but because he's emerged as the authentic leading conservative in the race when compared to Romney. Louisiana Republicans, he says, don't believe the argument that the former Massachusetts governor is the only candidate who can beat Obama.

"Of course, they also ask the very unsettling question for the Romney campaign, which is, "Would a Romney victory really be worthwhile?' " Langston says. And Santorum has done a brilliant job of reinforcing that concern, running a television advertisement depicting Romney as the same as Obama.

And though he's shown some appeal in the South, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a non-factor, Langston says.

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Dore says Texas Rep. Ron Paul has had the longest campaign presence in the state, particularly on college campuses, as has been the case in earlier contests in other states.

"Romney, Gingrich and Santorum have all seem to have all thrown together (local campaigns) in the last couple of weeks and we've seen offices springing up here and there as they turn their attention to Louisiana," he says.

Local GOP voters are happy to have a hand in shaping the outcome of the race, Dore adds.

"I can't remember a time where we've had a compressed period like this with all the major candidates in the race in the state, campaigning and putting on lots of events," he says. "It's exciting and I think the atmosphere is going to help increase turnout."

The 20 delegates at stake in Louisiana will help Santorum make up ground on Romney, who leads in the race to 1,144 delegates, but regardless of Saturday's outcome, the former Pennsylvania senator will still have a tough hill to climb.