Santorum comes out of his shell

In the northern Louisiana town of Natchitoches (pronounced Nakotash) a fleet of big, black Chevrolet Suburbans pulls up in front of Mama's Oyster House.

In the northern Louisiana town of Natchitoches (pronounced Nakotash) a fleet of big, black Chevrolet Suburbans pulls up in front of Mama's Oyster House.

Burly secret service agents check the joint for threats, and the neighbouring Papa's Bar and Grill, too. Others direct sheriff's officers and city police to line the street and funnel traffic away.

When they are satisfied the location is safe, a door opens and the Republican candidate Rick Santorum is guided inside.

Up close he is tall and tanned, with tired eyes, big, shiny teeth and a firm dry hand. He has that politician's way of answering questions that are not asked.

The Sun-Herald: "How will the campaign go after Louisiana?"

Mr Santorum: "I love Australia."

Being crawfish season (think big yabbies), Mama's was full on Friday. Beneath a two-metre-long plastic crawfish gripping a bottle of Bud Light, Mr Santorum signed a copy of his book for a stunned fan.

Under a glowing Coors beer sign he chatted to Ray and Margie Roberts. Mrs Roberts is a registered Republican and was thinking of voting for Mr Santorum in yesterday's primary. She prefers him to the leading candidate, Mitt Romney, but worries Mr Romney has more chance of beating Barack Obama in November's election.

Mr Roberts, who captained supply boats in the Gulf of Mexico before his recent retirement, prefers Newt Gingrich. "I just want to see him debate Obama head to head. He would blow him out of the water." Mr Roberts has already accepted Mr Gingrich stands little chance.

After mingling for 20 minutes or so Mr Santorum sat to eat with the owner, Corwyn Aldredge, a burly former footballer, and his wife, Missy. Also at the table is the former quarterback of Louisiana State University, Alan Risher, and the Natchitoches mayor Joe Sampite, with his wife.

Mr Aldredge says grace as secret service agents hover in the doorway. He gives thanks for the food - shrimp, crawfish, oysters and alligator two ways - and prays for Mr Santorum to be kept safe as he travels the nation, and "for everything to work out the way it should".

A new poll showed Mr Santorum had 42 per cent of the vote to Mr Romney's 28 per cent and

Mr Gingrich's 18 per cent.

Nationwide, though, Mr Romney enjoys a near unassailable lead in delegates won, with an estimated 563 to Mr Santorum's 263.

Earlier, Mr Santorum had faced criticism for saying voting for

Mr Romney was akin to voting for Barack Obama. He withdrew the comments, but even as he ate his 'gator his campaign ads making the very same point remained on air.

Mr Romney was still copping flak for comments made by one of his aides that his campaign was like an Etch a Sketch, and everything it said could be wiped clean and re-worked for general election, should he win the Republican nomination.

Despite the stumble Mr Romney campaigned on Friday afternoon in Shreveport, north of Natchitoches, as though he already had the nomination sewn up. "Obama is out of ideas, out of excuses and, in 2012, he's out of office," he said. "This election is a battle for the soul of America."

On Friday night he attended a fundraiser at the Petroleum Club. As American petrol prices rise all three candidates have been attacking Mr Obama for supporting alternative energy as well as oil drilling.

Mr Gingrich conceded that neither he nor Mr Santorum could win the required 1144 votes needed to secure the nomination before the candidate is formally elected at the Republican convention in August.

But he said they could prevent Mr Romney reaching the magic number, forcing a so-called brokered convention, in which real lobbying takes place and, technically, anyone could win.

However the former head of the Californian Republican Party, Ron Nehring, who helped draw up the rules of the primary race, told The Sun-Herald that should a candidate not have reached 1144 votes before the convention, the party establishment would fall in behind the leader. That looks certain to be Mr Romney.