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Santorum hopes to narrow the field in Kansas

Aiming to extinguish Newt Gingrich’s campaign and emerge as Mitt Romney’s sole rival, Rick Santorum stumped in Topeka, the capital of Kansas, and Wichita, its largest city, on Friday, the day before the state’s caucuses and four days before crucial contests in Alabama and Mississippi.

“We have an opportunity to potentially narrow this race down so we can go one-on-one with Gov. Romney, and once that happens, the conservative will be nominated,” Santorum told about 250 people in the ornate waiting room of a 1927 Union Pacific railroad station.

The state’s deep-red Republican voters, who will decide how to parcel out 40 delegates, are expected to choose Santorum over Gingrich and Mitt Romney, who both opted not to campaign here this week. Gingrich, who has won only in two Southern states, ditched an extensive schedule in Kansas to focus on the upcoming Deep South primaries.

“This is pretty much Rick Santorum country this year,” said Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University, explaining that the former Pennsylvania senator’s uncompromising stances on social issues, including abortion, appeal to the die-hard conservatives who show up at caucuses. “It’d be bigger news if Santorum didn’t win.”

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Santorum, signing posters after his speech, would not say that he believed he had to win the state, but said, “If I win in Kansas, that’s a great boost to us going into Tuesday.”

Shadowing Santorum in both cities was Ron Paul, whose avid and organized followers typically give his lagging campaign a boost in caucus states. Paul, who plans to attend four of the 96 caucus sessions on Saturday, finished third in Kansas four years ago, ahead of Romney.

Weary of not mattering in presidential elections, state GOP officials picked the Saturday after Super Tuesday to try to change that. “We’re just hoping to bring positive political attention to Kansas,” said Clay Barker, the state party’s executive director. “The county chairs are real excited.”

State officials have prepared for a heavy turnout. Barker estimated that three times as many Republicans may show up as did in 2008, when about 20,000 attended caucuses for a presidential race that was essentially over. To be safe, the party printed 120,000 ballots.

There are also caucuses in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands, which have nine delegates each. The Associated Press reported that Romney won all of Guam’s delegates at Saturday’s state convention, where his son Matt spoke on his behalf. Matt Romney also visited the Northern Marianas, which, like Guam, are on the other side of the International Date Line.

Aistrup dismissed the bragging rights from any wins in the territories. “I don’t think it’ll dominate the Sunday talk shows, let’s put it that way,” he said.

Santorum, however, also sought support in Guam, holding an hourlong conference call with the territory’s GOP leaders and speaking on a radio show.

In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback showed up at Paul’s and Santorum’s speeches on Friday, but did not endorse either candidate. Introduced at Santorum’s event, however, he opened his jacket wide to show a sweater vest, Santorum’s signature on the campaign trail. Brownback said he might endorse after Kansans vote, and predicted that the election could make a difference. “I think it will help to build momentum, and nobody has this won, so momentum’s pretty important,” he said.

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The state’s Republican caucus voters tend to be among the most conservative in a very conservative state. Along the highways that score the vast rolling range, where cattle chew and oil pumps rock, billboards announcing religious messages or denouncing abortion seem as frequent as those that say: “Demand U.S.A. Beef” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.”

In 2008, GOP caucusgoers awarded all of Kansas’ delegates to Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, even though it was clear that Arizona Sen. John McCain was going to be the party’s nominee. Romney came in a distant fourth, following Paul, who won three times as many votes.

“Ron Paul is certainly an interesting candidate and will probably receive some support because of his libertarian values,” Aistrup said, but he added that most voters would not see Paul as serious.

He said he thought a loss in Kansas would not hurt Romney much. “I don’t think this is another case of being able to castigate Mitt Romney because he can’t seal the deal,” he said.

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But Aistrup said the contest was between Santorum and Gingrich for social conservatives.

“Gingrich is losing those voters, and if he can’t pick them up in Kansas, he’s going to run into problems all over the country,” he said, calling it a sign of weakness that Gingrich had pulled out of half a dozen scheduled campaign events. “The fact that he’s backing out tells you that he tested the waters, and they were not that warm enough to jump in.”

john.hoeffel@latimes.com


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