WASHINGTON -- Rick Santorum won Louisiana's Republican presidential primary on Saturday, another Southern victory for the former Pennsylvania senator as he maintains his challenge to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.
Turnout was reported low in most areas, with only about a fourth of the state's Republican voters casting ballots. And only 20 delegates were at stake -- to be doled out proportionately after the final votes are in. Still, the victory lent a bit of credibility to Santorum, who continued to campaign despite lagging far behind Romney in the race for delegates.
"It shows he's got strength in the South and with conservatives," state GOP chairman Roger Villere said after Santorum was projected to be the winner.
Unofficial returns showed Santorum with about 49 percent of the vote; Romney, just over 26 percent; Gingrich, 16 percent; Ron Paul with 6 percent. Should those totals hold when all votes are in and the results are declared official, Santorum would get most of the delegates at stake. Romney would get a share too, assuming he stayed above 25 percent.
The drawn-out race was a boon for Louisiana, where, in the past couple of election cycles, the nomination had already been wrapped up by the time the state primary rolled around.
"We've been like a flyover state normally," said Villere. He said the attention was good for Louisiana and the state party, and he said the hard fought race will make the eventual winner a strong, tested challenger against President Barack Obama.
Santorum, Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul all campaigned in Louisiana in the past week.
"Congratulations to Rick Santorum on winning the Louisiana primary tonight. I applaud all of our candidates for working to make Barack Obama a one-term president," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, said in a news release after.
Obama was on the ballot, too, the winner over three unknown challengers ((Bob Ely of Illinois; Darcy Richardson of Florida and John Wolfe of Tennessee) in a little-noted Democratic primary.
Louisiana's Democratic Party leader focused on Romney in his statement on the primary results.
"Louisiana Republican voters overwhelmingly rejected Mitt Romney and his misleading 'do or say anything to get elected' methods in today's GOP primary," Buddy Leach said. "Today's low turnout for the GOP primary is yet another example of the Republican candidates failing to excite voters."
While the GOP primary was the marquee issue on the ballot, there also the Democratic contest and various local elections scattered around the state.
In Mandeville, campaign signs for local candidates lined the streets where Santorum had appeared at a rally Wednesday. There were few visible shows of support for the Republican presidential candidates.
Sue Ritchie, 69, arrived at Mandeville's city hall intending to cast a vote for Romney. But she turned back once she realized she wasn't ready to vote yet in all the local races.
Ritchie said she would vote with her head and not her heart in the presidential primary. She liked Gingrich but thinks Romney has the best chance of beating Obama in the fall.
"He's got the organization and the money," she said of Romney. "I love Newt Gingrich. He's full of good ideas, and I love to hear him speak. I just don't think he'll make it."
Also in Mandeville, Beth Cleveland, 54, voted for Santorum while her husband, Ed, voted for Romney.
"I think he's more conservative and representative of Christian ideals," Beth Cleveland said of Santorum. "The only hesitation about voting for him is I don't think he's going to have enough (delegates) to win. But at this point I want to vote for who I prefer rather than who is ahead."
Ed Cleveland was "not sold on Romney, either" but believes it's time for the party to rally around a candidate and gear up for the general election.
"I just want to back one now and get going," he said.
Dan Grzych, 64, of Mandeville, said he and his wife, Noel, 63, compared notes before they headed to the polls and agreed to vote for Romney so they wouldn't "cancel each other out."
"We felt he was the right man to beat Obama," he said.
Grzych said it would have been a tougher choice between Romney and Santorum if the delegate count was closer.
At a middle school polling precinct in Metairie, roughly three dozen voters had cast ballots in the first four hours polls were open.
Marianne Gabb, 54, an administrative assistant for a property management company, said she voted for Santorum because he is a family man. Santorum is the father of seven.
"It just shows commitment, shows he can stay the course," she said.
Martha Guthrie, a 75-year-old artist, voted for Romney and expressed reservations about Santorum's religious rhetoric.
"I just don't want somebody so far to the right that they are going to fall off the edge of the table. I think that is where Santorum is," she said.
Guthrie also said she worries that a bruising drawn-out primary will ruin the GOP's chances in November.
"I think it's ridiculous. Everybody is sick and tired of it. The Republicans are beating each other up so the Democrats don't have to even lift a finger," she said.
There were 776,567 registered Republicans eligible to vote in the primary. Republicans make up less than a third of the total electorate in Louisiana but the state has become reliably Republican in elections. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal won easy re-election last fall, and all statewide government officials are Republicans. Five of six U.S. House members are Republican. The junior senator, David Vitter, is a Republican and the GOP has always given three-term incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, a lifelong Democrat, a strong challenge.
Louisiana went solidly for John McCain in 2008 and Obama's approval ratings in the state are low.
The state will send 46 delegates to the party's national convention in late summer, but only 20 were at stake Saturday.
An additional 23 delegates will be selected at the state Republican convention in June. The final three delegates are Republican National Committee members from Louisiana, otherwise known as superdelegates.
The Democratic primary was all but forgotten. But Obama supporters did show up.
"I'm kind of rare for this neighborhood," Rick Osborne, a voter at one New Orleans precinct said. "I'm supporting the president because I feel like he has the interest of the country better in mind, and I'm a strong believer that even though my neighbors, who are the rank-and-file Republicans, I believe, are interested in a lot of issues and are sincere about it. I feel like the Republican leadership is insincere."