The battle for the Republican party crown heads into new territory with the “reddest of the red” states Kansas next to vote as Rick Santorum seeks to hobble Mitt Romney’s slow march forward.
In normal times, Saturday’s caucuses in midwestern Kansas would merit only a passing mention, but with no clear Republican candidate yet to take on Democrat President Barack Obama in November elections, all is still to play for.
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 House speaker Newt Gingrich out of the race. Libertarian Texas congressman 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 rightwing 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 president Ronald Reagan.
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 hold votes on Saturday.
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.
Two small polls released 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 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.”
But Troy Gibson, associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Mississippi, said he thought a Romney win in Mississippi unlikely.
Under pressure to drop out and clear the way for Santorum, the former House speaker, who won handily on Tuesday in his home state of Georgia, has said the neighboring states of Alabama and Mississippi are “must-wins.”
Buoyed by the polls, Gingrich’s campaign said it was boosting spending on advertising in the two states.
Romney — who in a measure of how every vote counts sent his son to Guam and the Marianas to stump for him — was hard on the campaign trail Friday, and trying to convince voters that he’s a southern boy at heart.
He told the Jackson rally that he was being turned into “an unofficial southerner and I’m learning to say ‘y’all’ and ‘I like grits’ and… strange things are happening to me.”
He won an important boost late Thursday when Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant endorsed the multimillionaire businessman.