Santorum wins Oklahoma, 'reddest of the red' states

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gestures as he

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gestures as he speaks at a rally in Oklahoma City. (March 4, 2012) (Credit: AP)

OKLAHOMA CITY -  Rick Santorum's appeal to conservative Oklahoma voters paid off with a victory in a Super Tuesday primary, and his victories in Tennessee the North Dakota caucus and strong showing in Ohio give him reason anew to claim that Mitt Romney is failing to connect with Republican voters.

The former Pennsylvania senator dubbed Oklahoma "ground zero of the conservative movement," and the state earned the nickname "reddest of the red" states after President Barack Obama's failed to win a single county in the 2008 presidential race.

Santorum visited twice, hitting a religious institution or a church on each visit, and claimed that his nomination would offer voters the strongest contrast to Obama in the November election.

"Tonight it's clear. It's clear. We've won races all over this country against the odds," Santorum said at a rally in Ohio. "When they thought, 'Oh, OK, he's finally finished,' we keep coming back. We are in this thing."

Santorum had said in an interview with The Associated Press on Sunday that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, had failed to "close the deal" with voters and that he should be the standard-bearer for the party. In Oklahoma balloting, he fared best among voters seeking a "true conservative" or a candidate with a "strong moral character."

With 91 percent of the state's 1,961 precincts reporting unofficial returns, Santorum had 34 percent of the vote. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had 28 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 27 percent.

Romney has finished lower than second place in only one nominating contest this year, the Minnesota caucus a month ago.

It also appeared Obama would lose a delegate to an anti-abortion activist from West Virginia, Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who had 18 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. Statewide, Obama lost in 15 counties.

Santorum's strongest performance came among those who called it deeply important for a candidate to share their religious beliefs — he carried a majority of those voters — and those who considered abortion a top issue. Among that group, he won two-thirds of the vote.

Six in 10 voters who listed a strong moral character as the primary reason for their vote went for Santorum. And among evangelical or born-again Christians, Santorum won about four in 10 votes.

Exit polling conducted for The Associated Press and other media showed that about half of Oklahoma voters identified themselves as "very conservative" and another quarter said they were "somewhat conservative." Santorum won nearly half the support from the very conservative group and about two-fifths of the somewhat conservative group.

Preliminary results from the Oklahoma exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the AP include 1,097 voters. The survey's margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Santorum's strong opposition to abortion and gay rights hit home with Linda Turner, a retired nurse from Norman who considers herself a born-again Christian.

"I think he is very strong," Turner said after casting her ballot for Santorum at the Freeman Baptist Church in northeast Norman. "He doesn't waiver or fluctuate like Obama. Santorum, I feel like he would stand on the morals that our country was based on."

Rendon Chambers, a political science student at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, said he voted for Romney, believing the former Massachusetts governor's experience heading the private equity firm Bain Capital best positioned him to address the nation's economic problems.

"Rick Santorum is way too far right and Newt has way too much baggage," he said. "I believe Romney has the ability to reach across the aisle and work with members of both parties."

But not everyone was happy with their options Tuesday.

"I am so frustrated with the slate of candidates that the only reason I came was to keep my voting record intact," said Herbert Skidmore, a retired school teacher in Norman who said he cast a blank ballot. He also vowed to change his voter registration to independent after first signing up as a Republican in 1970.

Bob Hauge, 46, an attorney from Tulsa, said he voted for Paul, calling him "the lesser of all the evils of the Republican Party."

Regardless of who won the Republican primary and took the larger share of the state's 40 delegates, Oklahoma's seven electoral votes could be a virtual lock for the GOP nominee in the fall. Even though Democrats outnumber Republicans in a state with populist roots, the state has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in a general election since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

"In the end we all need to unite together behind whoever the Republican nominee is," Gov. Mary Fallin told fellow Republicans at a watch party at an Oklahoma City hotel.

Obama was at risk of finishing the primary season without a unanimous re-nomination. Under Democratic Party rules, any candidate can win a share of delegates who receives 15 percent of the vote either statewide or in any one of Oklahoma's five congressional districts. Obama had won every delegate to date entering Super Tuesday.

With 91 percent of the state's 1,961 precincts reporting unofficial returns, Obama had 56 percent of the vote, but two challengers were near or above the 15 percent threshold. In addition to Terry's 18 percent, Jim Rogers of Midwest City had 14 percent. Also on the ballot were Bob Ely of Illinois and Darcy Richardson of Florida.

Ginny Freeman, 64, an insurance agent from Moore, voted to re-nominate the president.

"I think he's done a very good job under very adverse conditions," Freeman said.

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