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Analysis: Santorum's three-state sweep shakes up GOP race

WASHINGTON -- Rick Santorum seized an important opportunity Tuesday to become the chief conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, as he won Republican presidential contests in Missouri and Minnesota and appeared headed for a strong showing in Colo...

Santorum wins in three states
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was in a celebratory mood Tuesday as he won primaries or caucuses in three states, including Minnesota. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON -- Rick Santorum seized an important opportunity Tuesday to become the chief conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, as he won Republican presidential contests in Missouri and Minnesota and appeared headed for a strong showing in Colorado.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, was expected to remain the front-runner for the GOP nomination nevertheless, thanks to his huge advantages in campaign cash and organization going forward, and his impressive earlier wins in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada.

Still, the solid Santorum vote provided fresh evidence that "Romney's is a troubled candidacy," said Lawrence Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. "The outcome of the race is far from certain."

The strong showing by Santorum made it clear that Romney isn't yet his party's consensus nominee. It signaled that the GOP nomination campaign may remain a bitter struggle for months, possibly leading to a divided August convention and a weakened candidate against President Obama in the fall.

In Minnesota's caucuses, with 30 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania senator, had 46 percent. Texas Rep. Ron Paul had 26 percent, and Romney trailed with 16 percent. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, had 11 percent. Romney won the Minnesota GOP caucuses in 2008.

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In Missouri, a crucial swing state in the November elections, Santorum was headed for a landslide. With 82 percent of precincts reporting, he had 55 percent to Romney's 25 percent. Paul had 12 percent. Gingrich was not on the ballot.

Santorum also was running close to Romney in Colorado's caucuses in partial initial returns. A Romney loss in Colorado would be a major stumble. He won the 2008 caucus there with

60 percent of the vote, campaigned hard there this week and hosted an election night rally in Denver.

No delegates were chosen Tuesday. Caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota began a process that will lead to delegate selection in April and May. Missouri's primary is a "beauty contest" only; its 52 delegates will be

chosen in state and local conventions later this spring. Tuesday's contests were about influencing

public opinion and building momentum.

Turnout in the three states appeared to be low; only about 60,000 voters turned out for Minnesota's 2008 GOP caucuses, in a state that now has about

3 million registered voters. About half the voters in Missouri and Minnesota were expected to be Republicans who consider themselves conservative Christians.

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Romney hoped to sustain the momentum he'd gained with big wins in Florida and Nevada over the past week. But many conservatives remain uncomfortable with him. A Pew Research Center survey in late January found that 52 percent of Republicans rated the GOP presidential candidate field fair or poor.

Should conservatives rally around Santorum -- or take fresh looks at Gingrich or Paul -- no candidate is likely to amass the 1,144 delegates needed for the GOP nomination quickly.

Romney had pinned his hopes Tuesday on Colorado's caucuses. He canceled a planned stop Monday in Minnesota so he could campaign in Colorado, and he was to host a post-caucus rally Tuesday night in Denver.

He attempted some damage control earlier Tuesday, releasing a memo from political director Rich Beeson.

"As our campaign has said from the outset, Mitt Romney is not going to win every contest," Beeson said. He pointed out that 2008 GOP nominee John McCain lost 19 states in the nominating season that year, "and we expect our opponents will notch a few wins, too."

Santorum campaigned as the faith and family conservative, arguing that Romney is too moderate. Santorum has appealed to voters at churches, touted his long-standing opposition to abortion and blasted Romney for requiring Massachusetts residents to obtain health-care insurance coverage.

Gingrich has tried to woo this crowd, but his personal past -- notably two divorces and extramarital affairs -- is "a problem with some activists," said Charles Slocum, a former Minnesota Republican Party chairman. Gingrich campaigned Tuesday in Ohio, which votes March 6.

The next contests are in Maine, which concludes its caucuses Saturday, and Arizona and Michigan, which hold primaries Feb. 28. Romney remains favored to win all three, and he appears well-positioned to string together more wins on Super Tuesday, March 6, when 10 states vote and more than 437 delegates are at stake.

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