Colorado Republicans rewarded an insurgent religious conservative in presidential caucuses that showed the importance Christian activists hold in the state GOP.
Rick Santorum's narrow win over Mitt Romney stunned political analysts who had expected Romney to repeat his 2008 victory in the state. But Santorum's Colorado strategy _ intense personal outreach to tea party groups and religious leaders _ paid off handsomely, giving him a three-state sweep Tuesday. Santorum also won contests in Minnesota and Missouri.
State GOP Chairman Ryan Call said after the caucuses that Colorado is still up for grabs. Thirty-three of the state's 36 national delegates won't be formally assigned until a state party assembly April.
"What this tells me, frankly, is that we're going to have two rival slates of delegates vying for those 36 delegate spots at the national convention. So this is a competition for Colorado's votes that's far from over," Call said.
Caucus-goers seemed to support Call's suggestion.
In the Denver suburbs, Romney did well. In rural Colorado and the conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs, Santorum did well.
Santorum's heavy attention to Colorado Springs paid off.
El Paso County plays a big role in the state Republican Party's delegate formula, because the party allocates the 3,000 or so state delegates based on a county's support for the last GOP gubernatorial candidate. El Paso voters stuck with Dan Maes in higher numbers than Republicans elsewhere, many of whom shied away from the badly performing gubernatorial candidate.
Santorum also campaigned in rural areas of Colorado that Romney bypassed.
In Aurora, Republican caucus-goer Ginger Marso said Santorum won her vote after she saw him in Woodland Park.
"Until last week, I was going on electability and I was supporting Newt. But after listening to Rick and believing who is the better candidate ... I think he's it," she said.
Cecilia Seipp of Wheat Ridge said she liked Santorum because "he's a Constitutional observer."
"He's a good Christian man," she said.
Veteran caucus-goers said there was a big uptick this year in campaigning. They talked about getting phone calls, emails and mailed pleas for support from the campaigns.
"They've all been calling. I can't even keep track anymore," voter Linda Hatch said.
No matter whom they supported, voters seemed confident the eventual winner would be able to defeat the president.
Said Longmont caucus-goer Cherie Turner, "I find it hard to believe our country would elect him again."
Former Colorado GOP chairman Dick Wadhams participated in the caucuses at Columbine High School in Littleton. He said the state GOP made a smart decision by moving its caucuses ahead by a month. In 2008, Colorado's presidential caucuses were held on Super Tuesday, and bigger states stole the show.
"Last time we were really swallowed up. Now we're getting the attention," Wadhams said.
Associated Press writers P. Solomon Banda, Dan Elliott, Ivan Moreno and Thomas Peipert contributed to this report.
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