The battle for the Republican Party crown moved into new territory yesterday, with the “reddest of the red” states, Kansas, heading for the polls amid attempts by former US senator Rick Santorum to hobble former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s slow march forward.
In normal times, the caucuses in Midwestern Kansas would merit only a passing mention, but with no clear Republican candidate yet to take on Democrat US President Barack Obama in November elections, all is still to play for.
“We’re very much on the candidates’ radar because ‘Super Tuesday’ has come and gone and we still don’t know who our nominee is,” Sedgwick County -Republican Party executive director Lora Cox said.
“We are definitely the heartland for conservative thought,” she said, adding: “I anticipate a big turnout of conservative voters on Saturday.”
Ultra-conservative Kansas is an unlikely match for Romney, and the former governor of liberal Massachusetts has stayed away, focusing instead on Tuesday’s primaries in the key southern states of Alabama and Mississippi.
Although Romney consolidated his pole position in this week’s slew of votes, he failed to knock either Santorum or former US House speaker Newt Gingrich out of the race. Libertarian US Representative Ron Paul is also still hanging on, even though he has yet to win a single contest.
No polls have been carried out in Kansas, but most observers believe Santorum’s tough right-wing message will win over conservatives — although the race could still be muddled, according to some.
In Wichita, Santorum lumped Obama and Romney together, while likening himself to former US president Ronald Reagan.
“That guy who was too conservative — you remember him?” Santorum said to cheers from several hundred supporters gathered in an airplane hangar. “That guy who talked about the sanctity of human life and the importance of marriage in America.”
So far, Romney is leading the pack overall, having won about a third of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the party’s nomination, after 23 contests in the Republicans’ complex state-by-state race.
There are 40 delegates at stake in Kansas, and a further 18 split between the far-flung US territories of Guam, Northern Marianas and the Virgin Islands, which also held votes yesterday.
The bigger prizes are at stake on Tuesday, when Alabama with 50 delegates, Mississippi with 40 and Hawaii with 20, will go to the polls.
“Santorum’s social conservatism would be expected to play well with Deep Southern voters,” said Charles Franklin, co-founder of pollster.com and a professor at Marquette University Law School. “But stylistically, Gingrich with his long history in the South, maybe is a little more appealing than Santorum’s Yankee charm from Pennsylvania.”
Two small polls released on Friday predicted a tight race in Alabama between Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, narrowly giving the edge to Gingrich.
In Mississippi a poll by Rasmussen Reports gave Romney 35 percent of the vote, with Santorum and Gingrich both on 27 percent.
At a rally on Friday in Jackson, Mississippi, Romney went on the attack against Obama, saying: “We’ve gone from ‘yes we can’ [in 2008] to ‘it’s not my fault.’ It’s not my fault is his new campaign slogan.”
However, University of Southern Mississippi associate professor of political science Troy Gibson said he thought a Romney win in Mississippi unlikely.