The Republican battle to be the nominee to take on President Barack Obama is in an interesting repositioning phase ahead of “Super Tuesday” on March 6, when 10 states vote at once and almost a fifth of all delegates are decided.
A clutch of seven February contests, including three on Tuesday, will not alter the fact that Romney goes into that day the frontrunner, but they could boost Santorum’s challenge and put some added pressure on the favourite.
Santorum’s surge on Tuesday should place him back out in front of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has slumped in recent weeks, as the main conservative challenger to Romney.
“Wow, what a night for Santorum and a disaster for Mitt,” said Charles Franklin, cofounder of pollster.com and a professor at Marquette University Law School.
“This certainly raises the stakes for Super Tuesday and the burden on Romney to start winning like a frontrunner should. It’s a great second chance for Santorum to replace Newt as the top alternative.”
Romney and Gingrich will take solace in the fact that none of Tuesday’s contests are binding votes but for Santorum it is all about momentum, media attention and maybe some more cash to fill up his depleted coffers.
“Wow! Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota,” Santorum told cheering supporters after victories in those two states. He was leading Romney in a third tighter battle in Colorado in the early count.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama,” he said in a victory speech in Saint Charles, Missouri.
In a bad night for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor was running a distant second in Missouri, a disappointing third in Minnesota, and could lose Colorado, which he had been expected to win easily.
Santorum surprised many when he won the Iowa caucuses on January 3, the first stop in the protracted state-by-state primary process that will decide who takes on Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 general election.
But that was more than a month ago and he badly needed to reset a campaign that has flagged through New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and last weekend in Nevada, where he finished fourth and last.
With three big victories already under his belt, Romney is the man to beat, but there are still lingering doubts about the conservative credentials of the former governor of liberal Massachusetts.
In theory, Tuesday’s three states hold rich pickings as the four remaining candidates – including veteran US congressman Ron Paul – try to scoop up enough delegates to pocket the total 1,144 needed to secure the nomination.
But Tuesday’s votes will not prove a game-changer. The results in Colorado and Minnesota are non-binding but will help guide the results at state conventions to be held later.
Missouri’s vote, meanwhile, is being dubbed a “beauty contest” as the state will only award its delegates after a March 17 caucus.
Gingrich, who caused a surprise upset with his South Carolina win over Romney but suffered big setbacks in Florida and Nevada, was polling third in Colorado and last in Minnesota and was not even on the ballot in Missouri.
He campaigned little in the two states he was competing in Tuesday, preferring to focus his attention on Ohio, a key battleground later down the road.
By Tuesday, Romney had 73 delegates, Gingrich 29. Paul eight and Santorum three, according to Republican National Committee (RNC) figures.
The RNC said 30 delegates remained “unbound,” meaning not formally allocated: 28 from Iowa and two from New Hampshire. CNN said Romney had 100 overall, with Gingrich on 35, Paul on 15 and Santorum on 11.
The Republican establishment hopes it will all be over well before the August 27-31 convention in Tampa, Florida, avoiding a drawn-out battle that could hurt the eventual nominee’s chances against Obama.