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Rick Santorum wins Louisiana primary

Rick Santorum won the Louisiana Republican presidential primary Saturday, beating front-runner Mitt Romney in yet another conservative Southern state.

"We're still here. We're still fighting. We still believe, as this race really shows," Santorum told supporters in Green Bay, Wis.

Although the victory gives Santorum bragging rights and at least eight more delegates, it does not change the dynamics of the race. The former Pennsylvania senator still dramatically trails Romney in the hunt for delegates to the GOP's summertime nominating convention.

Even so, Santorum's win underscores a pattern in the drawn-out race. (Texas doesn't vote until May 29.)

The underfunded underdog has tended to win in Bible Belt states that include Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. Romney -- a deep-pocketed, highly organized former Massachusetts governor -- has persistently struggled in such heavily conservative regions.

"I'm not running as a conservative candidate for president," Santorum said. "I am the conservative candidate for president."

Neither candidate was in the state as Louisiana Republicans weighed in. Nor was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was trailing in Louisiana. With 87 percent of the precincts counted, Santorum had 50 percent, Romney 26 percent, Gingrich 16 percent and Ron Paul 6 percent.

Romney took a rare day off Saturday. Santorum spent the day campaigning in Pennsylvania and next-up Wisconsin, which votes April 3 and represents one of his last chances to beat Romney in a Midwestern state.

Santorum told voters in Milwaukee that he expects their state to be "the turning point in this race."

In an unmistakable jab at Romney, Santorum said: "Don't make the mistake that Republicans made in 1976. Don't nominate the moderate. When you do, we lose."

It was a reference to Ronald Reagan losing the 1976 Republican nomination to President Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter winning the White House.

Early exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks showed that Santorum's win in Louisiana was one of his strongest performances to date among conservatives, working-class voters and those calling the economy their top issue. And he continued his dominance among white evangelical voters and those looking for a candidate who shares their religious beliefs. Santorum topped Romney among evangelical voters by more than a 2-to-1 ratio.

As in previous Southern states, Romney's best showing came among voters with annual incomes above $100,000 and those who prioritized a candidate's ability to defeat President Barack Obama in November.

The bad economy was the top issue for Louisiana voters. Most were gloomy about prospects for a recovery, saying they felt the economy is getting worse instead of better. While some national surveys suggest that Americans are feeling optimistic about economic improvement, just 1 in 8 Republican primary voters said a recovery is under way.

Romney is far ahead in the delegate count and on pace to reach the necessary 1,144 delegates before the party's convention in August.

With the Louisiana results, Romney has 563 candidates overall, Santorum 271, Gingrich 135 and Paul 50.

Santorum badly needed a rebound after a decisive Illinois loss to Romney last week that moved party stalwarts to rally around the front-runner. Many urged Santorum and Gingrich to drop out.

Both refused and campaigned aggressively in Louisiana in the hope that a victory would justify their staying in -- despite Republican worries that the long nomination fight could hurt the party's chances against Obama. The Democratic incumbent faces no serious primary challenge, and his re-election campaign is well under way.

Romney barely campaigned in Louisiana, though his allies spent on TV ads there. Instead, Romney was looking past the results and toward the general election.

The Louisiana exit poll found that in a hypothetical contest between just the two top contenders, Santorum's lead over Romney tops 20 percentage points, suggesting that the former senator would pick up votes from Gingrich's and Paul's supporters.

Earlier Saturday, Santorum said he wants to debate Romney without the other competitors onstage.