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Analysis

Santorum sweeps Tuesday contests

Former Pa. senator takes Minn., Colo. caucuses, Mo. primary

BOSTON — In a race that has had more dizzying turns than a Wild Mouse carnival ride, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum triumphed in three Republican races on Tuesday, gaining convincing victories in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and the Missouri presidential primary.

The Colorado race in particular was a nail-biter. For hours the lead seesawed between Santorum and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who were, at times, just a few dozen votes apart. The Colorado state GOP did not call the election until after 1:30 a.m. ET, when they announced that Santorum had won with more than 40 percent of the vote, while Romney was five percentage points behind in second place.

In Missouri, Santorum soundly crushed Romney, the presumptive frontrunner, with 55 percent of the vote, more than 30 points ahead of his rival.

Romney fared even worse in Minnesota, where he failed even to gain second place; Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who simply refuses to go away with his relentlessly Libertarian message, scored 27 percent of the vote. This was significantly behind Santorum’s 44.8 percent, but safely ahead of Romney, who gained just under 17 percent.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who briefly soared to the position of chief rival after his stunning win in South Carolina last month, was all but absent from Tuesday’s contests. He was not even on the ballot in Missouri, came in last in Minnesota, and was a distant third in Colorado.

Santorum was jubilant in his victory speech, attacking Romney and President Barack Obama in almost equal measure. He excoriated Obama for his failure to listen to the people, then added that Romney “had the same positions as Obama.”

“"I don't claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” Santorum said. “I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

Romney appeared unbowed by the defeats, congratulating Santorum and stating that “I expect to become the nominee.”

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The impact of Tuesday’s contests will be more psychological than actual; no convention delegates were apportioned in the non-binding caucuses and primary, and the turnout was so low as to make the races purely symbolic.

Missouri was by far the largest battle, with more than 250,000 votes cast. However, with more than 4 million registered voters on the rolls, this represented a very small portion of the state’s political strength. Minnesota had the lowest turnout, with just a little over 47,000 votes cast, and Colorado had a bit over 65,000.

While the victories were no doubt welcome to Santorum and galling for Romney, they say relatively little about what will happen in the final battle for the Republican nomination, and serve as an even less accurate predictor of the outcome of the general election in November.

What these races did show, however, is that Romney’s much-vaunted “inevitability” is more in the minds of the pundits than in the hearts of the voters. For all his lush campaign funds and impressive organization, Romney has had a difficult time connecting with voters. A bruising battle in Florida, in which Romney and Gingrich slugged it out in a multi-million dollar negative ad campaign, seems to have damaged both men.

Romney has not helped his case with a series of missteps that give his opponents ammunition to attack him as an out-of-touch elitist. In an interview with CNN, his remarks that he was “not concerned with the very poor” were widely taken out of context and used against him.

In the February edition of Vanity Fair, authors Michael Kranish and Scott Helman dig into his past, from the infamous car trip with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car, to some of the darker moments of his activities in the Mormon Church.

At Romney campaign events, most attendees voice a grudging admiration for his business acumen, but acknowledge that they are supporting Romney mostly because they see him as the candidate with the best chance of beating Barack Obama in the fall. He has very little enthusiastic support, and the more he campaigns, the softer his base seems to become.

Santorum, by contrast, is a likeable fellow who appeals to the extreme right wing of his party. His social policies may endear him to the rock-ribbed conservatives, but may make him unelectable in a wider context. In Florida, for example, Santorum came in a distant third, with just 13 percent of the vote.

But this win will undoubtedly give him a boost in fundraising, and will keep the Republican contest interesting, at least until Super Tuesday on March 6.

At that point, ten states will go to the polls, including Massachusetts, Ohio, Georgia and Tennessee, and an undisputed frontrunner is almost sure to emerge.

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None of the four remaining candidates is anywhere near the magic number of 1144 – the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination. Romney has the lead, with 106; Gingrich is a distant second, with 37, Santorum has 22 and Paul 19.

If last night’s dramatic contests taught us anything, it’s that this race could still have a few zigs and zags before it’s done.

For now, all eyes are on Rick Sanotrum.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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Rick Santorum