WICHITA, Kan. — Rick Santorum scored a resounding victory Saturday in the Kansas caucuses, winning more than half of the votes, claiming most of the delegates and bolstering his credibility as he turns to other states with similar GOP electorates.
Facing crucial tests in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday and Missouri on Saturday, Santorum hopes to diminish Newt Gingrich so he can compete head-to-head with Mitt Romney for the party's presidential nomination.
But even as Santorum added more delegates to his total, Romney collected almost as many from smaller caucuses Saturday, leaving Santorum still more than 200 behind.
"We've had a very good day in our neighboring state of Kansas," Santorum told supporters at a rally in Missouri, where he spent the day campaigning. Santorum handily won Missouri's primary last month, but the state's delegates will be awarded in upcoming caucuses.
Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said Kansas shows voters are responding to his appeal. "This is a great win for the campaign and further evidence that conservatives and tea party loyalists are uniting behind Rick as the true, consistent conservative in this race," he said.
Santorum won 33 of the 40 Kansas delegates; seven went to Romney. But Romney gained 22 delegates Saturday from Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands. He also added seven delegates and Santorum took three in the Wyoming caucuses, which concluded Saturday.
"In what was hyped as a big opportunity for Rick Santorum, he again fell short of making a dent in Mitt Romney's already large delegate lead," the Romney campaign said in a statement.
In Kansas, Santorum received 51 percent of the votes, Romney 21 percent, Gingrich 14 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul 13 percent.
Romney and Gingrich downplayed their chances in the dark-red state, where abortion remains a touchstone issue and caucus voters tend to be the state's most conservative. Gingrich canceled half a dozen events in the state last week. Santorum visited Wednesday and Saturday.
Paul, who campaigned Saturday in the suburbs near Kansas City, told reporters that he had no intention of exiting the race.
Santorum's triumph did not surprise Joe Aistrup, a political science professor at Kansas State University who has written books on politics in Kansas and the South.
"To me, this is more about Gingrich vs. Santorum, and this is another nail in Newt Gingrich's coffin," he said.
"He is not the favored candidate among evangelicals; Santorum is. Eventually this will pare down to a two-man race. The only thing Santorum has to worry about is will it be soon enough."
Aistrup said Alabama and Mississippi are do-or-die for Gingrich, who moved to Georgia as a teenager and represented the state in Congress for two decades.
He has won only two states: Georgia and neighboring South Carolina.
"The only thing that Newt has over Rick is frankly the fact that he's from the South, and maybe that might not be enough," Aistrup said.
"If he can't win those two Southern states, his candidacy is gone. He has nothing else to go for."
Gingrich, who has repeatedly pledged to take his campaign all the way to the Republican presidential convention in Tampa, Fla., campaigned in Alabama on Saturday.
Playing on his Southern ties, he mocked Romney for saying he was learning to say "y'all" and like grits.
Kansas held caucuses in 96 sites.
More than 30,800 Republicans voted, 50 percent more than in 2008 when Arizona Sen. John McCain had essentially wrapped up the nomination. Kansans, however, went their own conservative way, voting for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Santorum won 33 of the 40 Kansas delegates; seven went to Romney. But Romney gained 22 delegates Saturday from Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands.