Santorum Stuns Romney with Three-State Sweep, Stealing Momentum in GOP Race

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Sarah Conard / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks to supporters at his primary night rally at the St. Charles Convention Center in St. Charles, Missouri, Feb. 7, 2012.

For the candidates vying to claw their way back into the Republican nominating fight, there are no symbolic victories. The Missouri primary is a $6 million beauty contest inexplicably wedged onto the political calendar ahead of the state’s caucuses next month. Minnesota’s caucuses are nonbinding; the state’s 40 delegates are chosen through local conventions. Ditto for Colorado’s 36 delegates. But Rick Santorum’s clean sweep of the three contests on Tuesday night was nonetheless a major triumph that bolstered his case to be the chief conservative challenger to front runner Mitt Romney and revived lingering questions about Romney’s appeal to the party’s base.

After skipping the costly, winner-take-all Florida primary and the Romney redoubt of Nevada to focus on the two Midwestern battlegrounds, Santorum won in low-turnout affairs dominated by the party’s conservative base. With 86% of Minnesota precincts reporting, Santorum amassed 45% of the vote, easily outpacing Ron Paul’s 27%. Romney, who won Minnesota by 19 points in 2008, plummeted to a distant third with 17%. Newt Gingrich brought up the rear with 11%.

(MORE: With Tuesday Caucuses, Santorum Gets a Second Chance to Shine)

Santorum also trounced the field in Missouri, capturing every county and 55% of the total vote. That was more than twice the 25% tallied by Romney, who did not contest what was, in essence, a straw poll. Paul finished third with 12%, while Gingrich — in an ignominious symbol of a dismal night — failed to qualify for the state’s ballot.

The stunner was Colorado, a state that Romney won in 2008 with 60% of the vote and where he was heavily favored to repeat. But Santorum capped a banner night by pulling out an upset victory, 40% to 35%, propelled by Colorado’s raft of Evangelical voters. In a single evening, he punctured the aura of inevitability that had gathered around Romney’s campaign in the wake of his victories in Florida and Nevada. Though Santorum still lags far behind Romney in projected delegates, he now leads the front runner in contests won, 4 to 3.

Standing before a buoyant crowd in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, Santorum exulted in his triumphs. “We doubled them up here and in Minnesota,” he crowed, standing before a “Made in America” banner and flanked by his wife, eldest daughter and Foster Friess, the Wyoming billionaire who has seeded Santorum’s super PAC with much-needed capital. After weeks of lurking in the shadows as Gingrich and Romney tussled, Santorum now finds himself jockeying once more to supplant the sliding Gingrich as Romney’s lead antagonist.

(VIDEO: What Comes Next After Mitt Romney’s Florida Primary Victory?)

Santorum’s trifecta was a hairpin turn for a campaign that has seen its fortunes fade since its surge to victory in Iowa. After four consecutive poor finishes, Santorum can now boast of three straight victories in the Midwest, a key region dotted with swing states where Romney has yet to notch an outright victory. He enters a three-week lull before the Feb. 28 contests in Michigan and Arizona with momentum that should strengthen his fundraising muscles.

Romney’s aides anticipated the setback. In a memo released on Tuesday morning, Rich Beeson, the campaign’s political director, sought to temper expectations and noted that the former Massachusetts governor boasted an early edge in delegates that would go unchanged on Tuesday night. “Of course, there is no way for any nominee to win first place in every single contest — John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents to notch a few wins too,” Beeson wrote. “But unlike the other candidates, our campaign has the resources and organization to keep winning over the long run. A winning conservative message, hard work and old fashioned delegate math will win this race for Governor Romney.”

The lack of direct delegates prompted many media outlets to downplay the import of Tuesday’s contests. But as Jonathan Bernstein and Josh Putnam explain, the final delegate allocations in Minnesota and Colorado are likely to take a cue from Tuesday’s results. In this sense, they are similar to the Iowa caucuses, which few people suggested lacked import because of the state’s nominating conventions.

(MORE: The Passion of Rick Santorum)

On a night that highlighted conservatives’ lingering chilliness toward Romney, the former Massachusetts governor did grab a consolation prize. With Gingrich showing no inclination to bow out anytime soon, Santorum’s win ensures that the conservative vote will remain split between the two candidates for the foreseeable future. Romney still boasts a yawning lead in delegates, cash and organization. But he will be forced in the coming weeks to fend off a barrage of attacks from a resurgent Santorum, who will tell Republicans they can’t relinquish their core arguments against Barack Obama by tapping a standard bearer who can be tied to the President’s signature policies.

In the meantime, Santorum’s task is to bottle the magic of Tuesday’s wins and convince conservatives that he’s not sticking around just to nettle Romney as the latter marches toward Tampa. “I don’t stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” the former Senator said. “I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

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