Salena Zito

As a devout Mormon, Mitt Romney was the presidential candidate experts anticipated could have a problem winning over Catholic voters.

Instead, exit polling from recent primaries shows Rick Santorum -- a staunch Catholic who often references his religion as a factor in his political views -- is winning far less of the Catholic vote than Romney. The former Pennsylvania senator has yet to achieve outright victory among Catholics in any state for which data are available, according to Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life analysis.

"He comes across as too righteous to resonate with the majority of the electorate, in my humble opinion. He complicates the message," said Joe O'Rourke, 39, a practicing Roman Catholic from Houston, Texas, who books hotel rooms for oil and gas industry workers. In 2004, O'Rourke took leave of absence to volunteer for President Bush's re-election campaign in Pennsylvania.

Kristi Storti, 40, a Catholic from Cranberry, finds Santorum's conviction refreshing.

"There are too many people that claim to be Catholic and are not practicing or are two-timers, only go to church at Christmas or Easter," Storiti said. "They do not follow the Catholic dialogue or doctrine. I think Santorum reminds them of this. These are the people who are likely turning away from him."

Data that Pew compiled using CNN exit polling from last week's Super Tuesday contests show Catholics preferred Romney in Ohio and Massachusetts, where he was governor. Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- a recent Catholic convert -- divided the Catholic vote in Georgia; Romney and Santorum split the Catholic vote in Tennessee. The data did not include Texas congressman Ron Paul, whose campaign largely focuses on caucus states.

Romney gets less support from voters for whom it's important to have a candidate who shares their religious beliefs, the Pew analysis showed. In Ohio, Santorum edged Romney 40 percent to 36 percent among voters who attach at least some importance to sharing religious beliefs with a candidate. Protestants' and evangelicals' voting preferences varied.

A Rasmussen survey of likely Republican voters released Friday showed a three-way tie between Gingrich, Santorum and Romney in Alabama. In Mississippi, Rasmussen found Romney leading those two rivals by 8 percentage points, with 35 percent. Both states hold primaries on Tuesday.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.