Rick Santorum’s campaign netted a victory Saturday night in Louisiana, where he won that state’s GOP primary by a significant margin. The win sparks hope of a campaign rebound, following Santorum’s lopsided losses to Mitt Romney in the Illinois and Puerto Rico primaries.
The former Massachusetts governor finished second and Newt Gingrich third in Saturday's contest.
The political terrain in Louisiana was favorable to the former Pennsylvania senator. Saturday’s vote was limited to Republicans only, making the electorate more conservative.
Exit polls from Louisiana showed Santorum dominating with voters labeling themselves as "very conservative." He also fared very well with those identifying as born-again or evangelical Christian.
"I'm not running as a conservative candidate for president," he said in Wisconsin following his Saturday victory, "I am the conservative candidate for president."
He vowed to press on, saying, "We're still here, we're still fighting."
Of the GOP pack, Santorum had campaigned most aggressively in Louisiana. Twenty of the state’s 46 delegates are stake, with NBC counting 10 for Santorum and five for Romney as of 10:45 p.m. ET.
Any netted delegates by Santorum might assist in eroding Romney’s advantage. But more importantly, a Santorum win would hit pause on the former Massachusetts governor's ability to grab a stranglehold on the race to the nomination.
For their parts, Romney and Gingrich had worked to lower expectations heading into the contest. Gingrich said he expected to finish third, but vowed to continue his campaign in hopes that Romney fails to win the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination.
Romney barely campaigned in Louisiana, but may still pick up some delegates as a result of the primary, due in part to the state’s allocation rules.
Delegates are allocated proportionally to candidates based on their share of the vote, unless they finish fewer than 25 percent. All of the votes for candidates receiving less than 25 percent will go toward delegates designated as uncommitted, and won’t be reallocated to candidates who did receive 25 percent or more of the primary vote.
Louisiana’s additional delegates will be allocated at a state convention in June. In their battle for delegates, though, each candidate has had to work to overcome gaffes that have beset their campaigns.
Romney’s rivals seized earlier this week on an aide’s comment likening the former Massachusetts governor’s hopeful pivot to the general election to erasing an Etch A Sketch. Santorum and Gingrich each showed up to events in Louisiana with the children’s toy in tow, hoping to stoke concerns among primary voters that Romney would abandon his conservatism if nominated.
But Santorum and Gingrich each had to deal with their own missteps that threatened to disrupt their momentum ahead of Saturday's contest. Santorum was forced to backtrack on a statement he made on Thursday, when he appeared to suggest that voters were better off with President Barack Obama than Romney, whom he labeled an “Etch A Sketch Republican.”
Both Romney and Gingrich pounced, prompting this statement from Santorum on Friday: “I would never vote for Barack Obama over any Republican and to suggest otherwise is preposterous, This is just another attempt by the Romney Campaign to distort and distract the media and voters from the unshakeable fact that many of Romney's policies mirror Barack Obama's.”
And Gingrich, who faces mounting calls for his withdrawal from the race, on Friday suggested that the president’s behavior only fuels suspicions that Obama is a Muslim -- treading on controversial territory that includes conspiracy theories about Obama’s religion and birthplace.
The Louisiana primary still largely serves, though, as a precursor to the April 3 primary in Wisconsin and the April 24 primary in Santorum’s native state of Pennsylvania.
Both are seen as must-win contests for Santorum in order to block Romney from winning the nomination; major tests of the former Pennsylvania senator's overall staying power in the campaign.
Msnbc.com’s Kara Kearns contributed to this report.