Republican candidate Rick Santorum in Missouri 390 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Sarah Conard)
NEW ORLEANS - Rick Santorum cruised to victory in the Louisiana Republican presidential primary on Saturday but still trails Mitt Romney by a wide margin in the national delegate count for the party nomination.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, was projected to finish second. Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich was third, but immediately rejected suggestions he should drop out. Texas congressman Ron Paul ran fourth.
Santorum had strong support in all income groups except for the very wealthy, and solid backing from conservative and religious voters in the Deep South state.
"The people of Louisiana sent a loud and clear message - this race is far from over," Santorum said in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he watched the election results after making a series of campaign stops.
Santorum, a socially conservative former US senator from Pennsylvania, has done well in the Deep South, winning Mississippi and Alabama earlier this month. In all, Santorum has won seven state contests in March.
Saturday's primary allocated only 20 of Louisiana's 46 total Republican delegates as candidates spar for the right to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November general election. The rest of the delegates will be allocated at the state party convention in June.
With 91 percent of the precincts reporting, Santorum had 49 percent of the vote, Romney 26 percent and Gingrich 16 percent. If those totals hold, Santorum and Romney would both gain delegates from Louisiana, with Gingrich shut out.
Exit polls showed that 47 percent of Republican primary voters identified themselves as "very conservative," and of those Santorum beat Romney by 52 percent to 24 percent.
Santorum also won majorities among voters calling themselves "somewhat conservative" or "moderate," and those who said that religion matters a lot in public life.
A Republican candidate needs 1,144 delegates to secure the party's nomination. CNN's current delegate count puts Romney well ahead, with 563 delegates to Santorum's 259.
Voter turnout at many precincts was low, according to election officials, even though state Republican leaders had hoped that having the nomination still in the balance would boost turnout.