Clean sweep for Rick Santorum in Colorado, Minnesota & delegate-less primary in Missouri

No delegates were at stake on Tuesday night, but Rick Santorum still scored three important--and surprisingly large--victories in the race for the Republican presidential nomination by winning caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and a primary in Missouri.

"Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota," Santorum said when he took the stage, before the Colorado results had been announced, at his victory party in St. Charles, Mo. He called his wins "a victory for the voices of our party, conservatives and tea party people, who are out there every day in the vineyards."

"I don't stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney," Santorum went on to say. "I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."

Romney, who had been discussed as the Republican Party's inevitable nominee after wins in Florida and Nevada last week, had his worst night of the 2012 presidential campaign.

For the first time, there was a contest where Romney did not finish in first or second place. In Minnesota, Romney fell to third, behind Ron Paul. With 94 percent of the precincts reporting in Minnesota, Santorum led with 45 percent of the vote, followed by Paul with 27 percent, Romney with 17 percent and Newt Gingrich with 11 percent.

Romney finished second in Missouri, but with only 25 percent of the vote--30 percentage points behind Santorum's 55 percent landslide.

Voters in eight states have now made their preferences known in the Republican presidential campaign, and Santorum has won four of those contests: Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Romney, who still leads in the delegate race, has won three: New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada. Gingrich has won one, South Carolina.

In Colorado, Santorum scored 40 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 35 percent, Gingrich with 13 percent and Paul with 12 percent.

In a swipe at Romney's remarks last week about his concern for the middle class over the rich and the poor, Santorum said in his victory speech, "I care about the very rich and the very poor. I care about 100 percent of America."

It was the first multi-state election night of the 2012 campaign. Colorado and Minnesota, which held caucuses, selected delegates to attend state conventions in the spring--the same process used in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Missouri, where Newt Gingrich was not able to secure a spot on the ballot, was an entirely different story, and a messier one. By state law, Missouri must hold its primary on a particular date in February. But this year, the national Republican Party mandated that--with the exception of four states that were allowed to vote in February--all others must hold their election in March or later. The Missouri legislature was not able to pass a law changing the primary date, so the state held the election anyway. But the primary is non-binding--meaningless in terms of delegate selection. There will be a Missouri caucus in April to determine who gets the state's delegates to the Republican national convention in August.

Despite the zero delegates that will be awarded, Santorum will glean something from his victories. When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008, he won in both Colorado and Minnesota; his performance Tuesday is certain to be compared to the results from four years ago.

Yet even with two losses on Tuesday, Romney is having a much better year in 2012 than he had in 2008: It was four years ago Tuesday that Romney dropped his bid for the presidency.

Santorum is likely to be able to use his upset victories to raise money and get media attention to help him through the doldrums of February. After Saturday's caucuses in Maine, there won't be another Republican election until Arizona and Michigan hold primaries on Feb. 28.

The Romney campaign seemed to suspect that Santorum would have a big night. Starting on Sunday, Romney's campaign began hammering Santorum, sending reporters a lengthy "research briefing" about Santorum's earmark spending during his time in Congress, and dispatching Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and Republican presidential candidate, to raise questions about Santorum's conservative credentials.

In Missouri, with 99.6 percent of the precincts reporting, Santorum received 55 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 25 percent and Ron Paul with 12 percent.

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