HOUMA, La. — Louisiana is starting to look like it could be the last stand for some candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination.
Candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been campaigning here the hardest, stumping in the state for more than a week. Both are struggling to keep their campaigns afloat after Mitt Romney's victory by nearly 12 percentage points in Illinois on Tuesday.
On Thursday, Gingrich spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at Big Al's Seafood Restaurant here, disparaging President Obama's energy policy and urging voters to make him the Republican nominee.
"Stopping Barack Obama really, really matters," he said to rousing applause. "I'll do better debating Obama this fall than any other candidate — but to do that, I need your help to become the nominee."
Candidates will be seeking 20 of the state's 46 delegates Saturday, with the other 26 assigned at caucuses next month and at the convention in August.
With four candidates remaining in the longest Republican nominating contest in decades, Louisiana is experiencing its first meaningful GOP primary since it began voting for presidential candidates in 1980, said Timmy Teepell, a Republican consultant with close ties to Gov. Bobby Jindal. "This is the first time it's actually meant anything," Teepell said.
Romney has amassed 563 of the 1,144 delegates needed for the Republican nomination; Santorum is in second with 263, and Gingrich far behind with 135, according to The Associated Press.
On Wednesday, Santorum emphasized the importance of Saturday's vote to his campaign. "We have to do well — really well — here in Louisiana," he said. He asked local voters to "reset this race. Give us a chance."
With Romney's wide lead in delegates and Santorum's lead in pre-primary polls in Louisiana, the significance of Saturday's voting has waned. None of the candidates has events scheduled in the state Saturday.
Whatever Saturday's outcome, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said the former House speaker will turn his attention to upcoming primaries in Wisconsin and Texas. Gingrich will likely be viewing Saturday's returns from his Virginia home, he said. "The name of the game is delegates," Hammond said. "That's the number that counts."
Some political analysts said that if Gingrich does poorly in Louisiana, especially if he fails to win more delegates than Romney, widely perceived as not conservative enough for the South, it could spell the end of Gingrich's resurgence as a political force.
"If he can't do well in Louisiana, then it's pretty much finished," said Ed Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political scientist. "If he's beaten by Romney in the Deep South, it's a sign that his campaign is going nowhere."
This story first appeared in USA Today.