Rick Santorum’s Unlucky Timing

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The morning after his three-state sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Rick Santorum is finally getting a bit of credit. But for a guy who’s now won more nominating contests than any other Republican presidential candidate (if you charitably count Missouri’s meaningless pageant), Santorum stands to reap few rewards for his efforts. Botched counts, party rules and bad timing threaten to neuter all four victories.

First the boring delegate arcana: The caucuses in Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado didn’t apportion delegates directly, but instead kicked off a process to choose delegates who will eventually go to the Republican National Convention in Tampa. CNN’s delegate projection puts Santorum at 34, but it’s not a guarantee. The aforementioned Missouri sideshow had absolutely no bearing on the nominating math; there’s an entirely separate contest there in March. So, why does anyone care about these votes?

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

These elections send messages to Republican voters who have yet to make up their minds. Winning votes, regardless of the delegates they may deliver, illustrate a candidate’s potential support, and make headlines that imbue candidates with the holiest mana of presidential politics: momentum. Iowa is foremost in that regard, a high-stakes caucus in a state with few delegates to give and a wildly unrepresentative electorate that nonetheless sets the tone for the campaign. And what did Santorum gain from his Iowa victory? Pretty much nothing. The vote count was screwy and so close that no one knew he’d won it until South Carolina was practically over. Romney got the bump and Santorum got snowed in New Hampshire.

(MORE: Santorum Stuns Romney with Three-State Sweep, Stealing Momentum in GOP Race)

Santorum’s victories in Minnesota and Colorado may well prove just as unrewarding, if for a different reason. The fickle press corps is enamored of Santorum on the morning after his wins, but there are three long weeks before the next major contests in Arizona and Michigan. (New Hampshire and South Carolina followed on Iowa’s heels.)  New storylines will surely emerge as the campaign moves on. (What was the big story three weeks ago? Newt Gingrich talking about Bain in South Carolina maybe, but 21 days is such an eternity in the political vortex, I can’t recall.) So timing has dealt Santorum a bad hand again while the fundamentals remain unchanged: Romney has the money, campaign infrastructure and Establishment support that historically win primaries; Santorum has four wins, fewer delegates than his chief rival and a heap of bad luck.