Santorum takes Kansas caucuses

Rick Santorum has overwhelmingly won the Kansas presidential caucuses, hoping to blunt front-runner Mitt Romney's momentum in the grinding campaign for the nomination to oppose President Barack Obama in the November election.

But Mr Romney countered on Saturday with wins in Wyoming as well as in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the US Virgin Islands.

Mr Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, was considered the favourite in Kansas, where his staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage resonated with the state's large bloc of evangelical voters. He hoped his victory would give him an advantage heading into Tuesday's unexpectedly pivotal primaries in the southern states of Alabama and Mississippi where polls show he is dividing the most conservative vote with Newt Gingrich.

Mr Gingrich, struggling for survival in the race, can ill afford a loss in either Mississippi or Alabama. Mr Romney is seeking a Southern breakthrough to demonstrate an ability to win the support of evangelical voters.

For his part, Mr Santorum hopes to knock Mr Gingrich out of the race and finally emerge as Mr Romney's sole challenger from the right to stand against Mr Obama.

Final returns in Kansas showed Mr Santorum with 51% support, far outpacing Mr Romney, who had 21%. Mr Gingrich had 14% and Ron Paul trailed with 13%.

Mr Santorum picked up 33 of the state's 40 delegates at stake, cutting slightly into Romney's overwhelming advantage. "Things have an amazing way of working out," Mr Santorum told supporters in Missouri, where he traced his campaign through a series of highs and lows. He called his showing in Kansas a "comfortable win".

Polls show a close three-way race in both Southern states, particularly Alabama, and Mr Romney, Mr Gingrich and Mr Santorum all added to their television advertising for the race's final days.

The contests in Kansas and Wyoming left Mr Romney with 453 delegates in the Associated Press' count, more than all his rivals combined. Mr Santorum had 217, while Mr Gingrich had 107 and Mr Paul had 47.

A candidate must win 1,144 to clinch the Republican presidential nomination at the national convention in Tampa, Florida, in late August.