Kansas Republican voters on Saturday heavily favored former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in the race for a candidate to challenge President Obama.
Santorum won 51 percent of the vote in Saturday’s caucuses in Kansas – the highest level of support he has received in any state. Mitt Romney had 21 percent, Newt Gingrich 14 percent and Ron Paul 13 percent.
Campaigning in Missouri, where he has already won a beauty-contest primary but must still compete for delegates, Santorum called his Kansas showing a “comfortable win.”
He appeared to have locked up all four Kansas congressional districts and, with them, 33 of the state’s 40 Republican convention delegates.
Romney appeared to have won seven delegates. Because he managed to clear 20 percent, only he and Santorum were eligible to receive delegates.
The final apportionment of delegates will occur after almost 1,000 provisional ballots are counted at party headquarters in Topeka and the results are certified by the party’s executive committee. The delegates will be chosen later at party conventions.
In Sedgwick County, where nearly 3,000 people voted, Santorum beat his closest rival, Paul, by more than 2 to 1. He outpointed Romney and Gingrich 4 to 1.
Caucus participants at Century II in Wichita – including Gov. Sam Brownback – were almost universally excited at the prospect of casting a meaningful vote in a national campaign.
Because Kansas is overwhelmingly Republican, it sends 40 delegates to the national convention, more than larger states such as Arizona and Colorado.
But because its caucus comes after the Super Tuesday primary, the state has had little influence on the nomination until now, Brownback said.
"I am excited that Kansas is relevant in this presidential race because most of the time the race is already over," he said. "Well this year, we’re relevant, it will matter to somebody’s momentum ... it will matter on the delegate count."
Although it hasn’t happened for many years, Brownback acknowledged the possibility that none of the candidates might go to the party convention in Tampa with a clear majority of delegates.
"This year’s been a different year, it really has. You could see a brokered convention," Brownback said. "The possibilities of that this time around are more significant than I’ve seen in my political career."
Brownback, who briefly ran for president himself in 2008, said he’s not endorsing a candidate among the remaining contenders.
"I started off with (Texas Gov.) Rick Perry," he told the crowd. "That didn’t go so well."
Backers tout their candidates
The Wichita caucus featured representatives speaking for three of the four candidates for the GOP nomination. The crowd cheered by far the loudest for Santorum’s wife, Karen.
Karen Santorum portrayed Santorum as a husband and father who has "been with me every step of the way" in rearing and home-schooling seven children, including a girl with disabilities.
She said her husband is "prayerful and guided by Christian principles" including "service to our dear Lord and others."
"Rick is not a well-oiled weather vane," she said. "He leans into the wind, he is not blown and tossed by the winds of political correctness. He is who he is."
Karen Santorum, who is a nurse, said the United States has the "finest health care system in the world," and drew big cheers when she said her husband would "repeal Obamacare."
In a tearful moment, she said that under government health care, people like her disabled daughter and Alzheimer’s-afflicted father would be the first to be denied care.
She also drew a big cheer when she characterized her husband as a “great fighter for life" on the abortion issue.
Josh and Katy Kelton of Rose Hill and friends Joe and Echo Taverner of Douglass brought their own cheering section for Santorum, five children each and one on the way for the Taverners.
“Our children really enjoyed cheering,” said Katy Kelton shortly after both families had their pictures taken with Karen Santorum.
Both the Keltons and Taverners said they’ve followed the campaign on TV but it was a special treat to meet their candidate’s wife in person.
“It’s exciting, surreal almost, said Joe Taverner. He said the caucus was excellent. “It’s good to see so many people interested in the Republican Party.”
Paul supporters, who had turned out about 1,500 strong for a pre-caucus tea party rally Friday, were also much in evidence.
“I think he’d do a great job if we could just get him elected,” said Dave Taylor of Clearwater.
John Axtell, Texas Rep. Paul’s state chairman and speaking surrogate at the caucus, said Paul, an obstetrician as well as a congressman, wants to revoke the Roe v. Wade abortion decision because "life begins at conception and must be protected."
He also said Paul is the only one of the major candidates to have served in the military and pointed to Paul’s consistent record against tax increases, debt-ceiling increases and government bailouts.
Axtell got a big cheer when he said Paul has agreed to cut the presidential salary 90 percent to match it to the average wage.
Debate teacher Rodney Wren represented former House Speaker Gingrich, who had canceled all his Kansas appearances to concentrate on trying to revive his flagging candidacy in Tuesday’s Mississippi and Alabama primaries.
Wren, speaking for Gingrich, called for an end to the "tyrannical reign of Barack Hussein Obama" and criticized Democrats for wanting to "spread the wealth around."
He said the founding fathers promised "equality of opportunity, not of outcome."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, who had virtually conceded the state, had little support in evidence at the caucus.
A table set up to tout his candidacy was virtually deserted and there were scattered boos when county party chairman Bob Dool announced he hadn’t sent a surrogate to represent the campaign during the speeches but instead sent a letter.
The letter, read by Dool, consisting mainly of campaign themes, touting Romney’s record of tax cuts as a governor and as the rescuer of the financially troubled Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.
‘I’ve chosen to support Rick Santorum’
There was some intramural controversy when former Rep. Todd Tiahrt, now the state’s Republican national committeeman, announced: “As a national committeeman, I am officially neutral. As a private citizen, I’ve chosen to support Rick Santorum.”
That drew cheers from the Santorum faction and boos from some of the Paul backers, many of whom had hooted Tiahrt at Friday’s rally.
Tiahrt dismissed the boos.
“Thank you, you must have been here yesterday, too,” he quipped at one of the booing Paul supporters, drawing laughs from the larger Santorum contingent.
“Rick Santorum is one of the most optimistic people I know,” Tiahrt said. “He has been the same since I met him about 20 years ago. He understands why we need to get our economy going, why our tax structure’s too high, why our regulations are strangulating the opportunity to create and keep jobs.”
Tiahrt’s speech raised questions – and not only among Paul’s supporters.
Judy Park, president of Republican Women United, said she wondered whether it was appropriate for Tiahrt to have used his time at the caucus podium to support a single candidate.
“I would never personally do that out of respect for the other candidates and people supporting them,” she said.
Earlier, Rep. Mike Pompeo of Wichita led the Pledge of Allegiance and also got a caucus speech.
"Do any of you believe we won’t take back the White House?" he asked the crowd.
"NO!" they responded.