Santorum wins Louisiana primary

Rick Santorum cruised to an easy victory in Louisiana's Republican presidential primary on Saturday.

The Associated Press and television news networks projected Santorum as the winner shortly after the polls closed at 9 p.m. ET.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum had 49 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney held second place with 27 percent. Newt Gingrich had 16 percent and Ron Paul trailed with 6 percent of the vote.

Santorum's win won't change the overall state of the race, as the candidates will divide the 20 delegates at stake in Louisiana.

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“Winning Louisiana does nothing in the grand scheme of things,” said GOP strategist Tyler Harber. “It won’t give a huge boost of support to Rick Santorum. Winning these contests isn’t as important. It’s now about winning the delegates.”

Before Saturday's contest, Romney led the field with 563 delegates —- slightly fewer than half of the 1,144 needed to win his party's nomination. Santorum had earned 263. 

Santorum's victory in Louisiana shows his strength among the GOP's conservative Southern base. He has won Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee. Gingrich, who had vowed to win with a southern strategy, won the contests in Georgia and South Carolina.

Exit polls from Louisiana found that three-quarters of voters identified themselves as conservatives and seven in 10 said they support the Tea Party movement. 

The top issue for voters on Saturday was the economy, the exit polls found. Despite data showing the economy is recovering from recession, about 60 percent of Louisiana voters said the economy is getting worse.

Santorum has been barnstorming the state, and the super-PAC backing him has spent nearly a half million dollars there. But because Louisiana awards its delegates on a proportional basis, a Santorum win is likely to be a qualified one.

Romney has set expectations low in Louisiana and campaigned there for just one day.

Romney’ campaign has also spent almost no money on the state, and the pro-Romney super-PAC that has deluged Santorum in other states put just $151,000 into Louisiana in the last ten days.

The next primary contests are on April 3 in Washington, D.C, Maryland and Wisconsin, a state where both the Santorum and Romney campaigns have invested heavily.