By CARL SMITH
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum won Mississippi’s presidential primary Tuesday night, defeating former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in a highly contested race.
The Associated Press called Mississippi for Santorum shortly after 10 p.m.
With 96 percent of statewide precincts reporting at press time, Santorum held a 1.6 percent — 4,335 votes — lead over Gingrich and a 2.6 percent lead over Romney.
Although Santorum emerged ahead of his GOP challengers, it appears the top three finishers will receive an almost equal amount of state delegates. Mississippi has 40 Republican delegates, 37 of which are awarded proportionally in the primary. The other three are party officials who may choose which candidate to support. Two of the three already were committed to Romney, and one was uncommitted.
In Oktibbeha County, Santorum finished second with 30.88 percent of the vote, while Romney finished the night on top with 35.18 percent.
As of press time, Santorum had won or was ahead in many of the state’s northeastern and east-central counties, while Romney had a strong showing in the Delta, the Jackson metro area and along the Mississippi River. Gingrich was ahead in a few areas throughout the state but primarily led in many of the southwestern counties surrounding Hattiesburg.
Gingrich, Romney and Santorum all spent a portion of last week campaigning in Mississippi. Ron Paul, R-Texas, did not actively campaign in the state.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Wicker will represent the GOP in November after he defeated inter-party opposition from E. Allen Hathcock and Robert Maloney, both of Madison. With 91 percent of statewide precincts reporting, Wicker led the three-man race with 89 percent of the vote. In Oktibbeha County, Wicker earned 89.86 percent of Tuesday’s vote.
Wicker was chosen by former Gov. Haley Barbour to fill former Sen. Trent Lott’s seat and went on to win a special election in 2008 for the remainder of the term. Prior to his Senate term, Wicker represented Mississippi’s District 1 in the U.S. House of Representatives.
On the Democratic side, Albert Gore Jr. will face Wicker after receiving 56 percent of the statewide vote. Gore defeated Will Oatis and Roger Weiner, who earned 20 and 24 percent of the statewide vote respectively. In Oktibbeha County, Gore received 75.85 percent of the vote, while Oatis had 6.89 percent and Weiner had 17.08 percent.
Also on November’s Senate ballot are Thomas Cramer of the Constitution Party and Shawn O’Hara of the Reform Party.
Incumbent Republican Rep. Gregg Harper defeated Tea Party challenger Robert J. Allen of Sturgis for the right to represent the GOP in November’s District 3 House race.
Harper, who has served as District 3’s representative since defeating Democrat Joel Gill in 2008, received 92 percent of the districtwide vote Tuesday. In Oktibbeha County, Allen’s 17-percent showing fell short of challenging the incumbent.
Harper will face Democrat Crystal C. Biggs in November’s general election. Biggs ran unopposed in Tuesday’s primary.
As for the District 1 House seat, incumbent Republican Rep. Alan Nunnelee also held off GOP challengers, defeating Robert Estes of Southaven and former Eupora Mayor Henry Ross Tuesday. Nunnelee received 57 of the districtwide vote Tuesday, while Ross finished in second with 29 percent and Estes ended with 14 percent. In Oktibbeha County, Nunnelee received 56.5 percent of vote, while Ross earned 35 percent.
Nunnelee was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 when he defeated Democrat incumbent Travis Childers. He will face Democrat Brad Morris in November. Morris ran unopposed on the Democratic ticket Tuesday.
The unofficial county results do not include 277 absentee ballots. Out of the 24,714 registered Oktibbeha County voters, almost 19 percent participated in the primary.
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oktibbeha County Election Commissioner Myles Carpenter said overall turnout was low throughout the day but no major voting problems or irregularities had been reported.
“We’ve had someone from the Secretary of State’s office (observing) all day,” Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk Glenn Hamilton said after polls were closed. “We only had one machine in the entire county that had a problem, and we were right on top of it when we found out. It had no effect on the vote.”
Carpenter echoed Hamilton’s sentiment, saying the primary was one of the smoothest elections he has witnessed in some time.
“Voter turnout had been light with Democrats throughout the day since there’s not really a huge interest in that ballot,” he said. “Voter turnout at Humphrey Coliseum was particularly light with the East Starkville precinct since most of that area is made up of students who are out on spring break.”
The West Starkville voting precinct located at the National Guard Armory on Highway 12 was moved early from the main building to a facility in the back of the complex. Hamilton said the move was made due to incomplete renovations at the facility.
“We placed signs up where voters typically park with arrows directing them to the proper building,” Carpenter said. “The National Guard also provided someone to assist voters as they were needed.”
Hamilton, who was elected in November and replaced retiring Circuit Clerk Angie McGinnis, said he thoroughly enjoyed running his first county election.
“I give credit to my staff, the poll workers and the election staff,” Hamilton said during the ballot count Tuesday. “It’s been the best I can hope for.”