DECISION 2012 ELECTION COVERAGE
Santorum's stunning victories Tuesday in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado marked his best performance thus far in the rollicking contest for the Republican presidential nomination - and Romney's worst. The better-funded and organized former Massachusetts governor shrugged off his poor showing, but his losses were stinging reminders of a stubborn weakness: Romney's inability to appeal to the conservatives at the base of the party.
It was far from clear, though, that Santorum would be able to turn his momentum into the millions of dollars he would need to overtake Romney. But in the hours after his victory, Santorum said he's finally being heard and supported by conservatives who want a clear contrast to President Barack Obama.
"I think last night we raised a quarter of a million dollars online," Santorum told CNN's "Starting Point" the morning after. "We are going to have the money we need to make the case we want to make."
And to take the fight to Romney's virtual home states. On MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Santorum said he'd debate Romney in Arizona, the home of a sizable Mormon population and a key patron, Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential candidate in 2008. Also on Santorum's travel schedule: Michigan, where Romney's father was governor.
The developments shifted the Republican political narrative just as Romney had aggressively courted conservatives and they had begun to embrace him in the first step toward what many Republicans hoped would be a swift end to the nomination fight.
Instead, Santorum thrived and relegated House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another contender for the conservative vote, to the rear of the results Tuesday with Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Gingrich mostly skipped the three-state race, focusing instead on Ohio and its vote on Super Tuesday, March 6.
A subdued Romney congratulated Santorum and said he'd press on.
"This was a good night for Rick Santorum," Romney told supporters in Denver on Tuesday. He offered a bit of forced optimism: "We'll keep on campaigning down the road, but I expect to become our nominee with your help."
Romney added, "When this primary season is over, we're going to stand united as a party behind our nominee to defeat Barack Obama."
Santorum cast the results as a victory for a purer form of conservatism than Romney has offered, heard more clearly by voters across the nation's midsection without a deafening TV air war that Romney has dominated.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, said in a nationally broadcast interview Wednesday that he thinks conservative Republicans "are beginning to get" that he represents the party's best chance to oust Obama.
He also ripped into Romney's compromises on health care, economic bailouts and cap and trade and mocking Romney's attempt to be seen as the political outsider in 2012.
"Gov. Romney, Mr. Outsider, was for government takeover in health care, was for government takeover of the private sector of the Wall street bailout and was for the government takeover of industry and energy with the cap and trade," Santorum said on CNN. "So Mr. Private Sector was Mr. Big Government when he was out there running for the private sector."
In the glow of victory, he looked past Romney to the general election. As the Republicans fight, Obama watches from his perch in the White House - and waits.
"I don't stand here to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama," Santorum said Tuesday night.
He wasn't the only loser.
On the first day of multistate voting, the trio of contests exposed a glaring deficiency for Gingrich.
The former House speaker lacked the resources and organization to compete just as he's trying to project strength heading into Super Tuesday. He made only minimal efforts in the three states that voted Tuesday and stayed out of sight as the results rolled in. Gingrich is focusing on Ohio, where early voting for the March 6 primary has begun.
To be fair, Tuesday's contests will have little bearing on the race for delegates. Missouri's nonbinding primary in particular was little more than an extensive warm-up routine. The state will hold an official caucus in March.
But even symbolic victories can produce or slow momentum.
Romney's camp began downplaying the results hours before the voting began. Rich Beeson, his political director, released a memo earlier in the day noting that even McCain lost 19 states on the way to capturing the nomination in 2008. And Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the director of Romney's congressional endorsements, released a statement as the votes began showing his candidate had lost in Blunt's home state.
"I congratulate my friend Rick Santorum on his win tonight," Blunt said. "But the fact remains that this is a nonbinding primary, meaning Missouri's delegates are still very much up for grabs."
Following Maine's low-profile caucuses, which conclude Saturday, the candidates will have an extended lull. Beeson recently noted that momentum would be vital heading into the 17-day period without an election, something he likened to a grand canyon with no precedent in modern presidential politics.
"If you don't have momentum and resources coming into it, it's going to be hard to have momentum and resources coming out of it," Beeson said.
That was a week before he realized his boss would suddenly see his momentum disappear.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)