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Santorum hoping for a rebound in Louisiana

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Mitt Romney faces another likely Southern setback this week, this time in Louisiana.

Rival Rick Santorum is pushing for a strong showing in Saturday's primary, driven largely by the conservative religious voters who have propelled him to victory elsewhere.

"We think we're going to do well here. This state, I think of all the states in the Deep South, I think matches up with us well. It's a very conservative state," Santorum told The Associated Press as he campaigned this week. "We're going to do better even than Mississippi and Alabama."

He needs the rebound and may get it given that Romney is barely competing in the state.

Santorum was humbled in Illinois on Tuesday, where he lost to the former Massachusetts governor by 12 percentage points. Santorum couldn't broaden his appeal there much beyond voters who identified themselves as "very conservative," and most of his support came from Republicans in rural southern Illinois.

The former Pennsylvania senator has also been plagued by a series of problematic comments, starting in Puerto Rico where he spent days trying to explain his thoughts on whether English should be the island's official language. He then suggested that he didn't care about the country's unemployment rate, a comment he later said he would have liked to rephrase.

And when he campaigned in Louisiana last weekend, the fiery Baptist preacher who introduced Santorum got him into some trouble when he said the U.S. is a Christian nation and suggested that people who don't love America should "get out."

Still, that message didn't seem to hurt Santorum with the more than 1,000 faithful who greeted him at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, where nationally influential evangelical leader Tony Perkins regularly worships. Perkins invited dozens of pastors to meet with Santorum before the service there and urged them to tell their congregations to vote Saturday.

"I like Rick Santorum because of his faith and conservative values," said Don Williams, the pastor at Hosanna First Assembly Church in Baton Rouge, an evangelical congregation. "Mitt Romney does not share my conservative values."

Those evangelical networks helped propel former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to a popular-vote victory over Sen. John McCain in Louisiana's 2008 primary.

Still, Santorum faces a potential challenge from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has taken his flailing campaign -- and his pitch for low gas prices -- to oil-rich Louisiana. Gingrich placed second to Santorum in Alabama and Mississippi.