Rick Santorum's stunning wins last night may change the trajectory of the GOP presidential race, say campaign watchers, but the key is whether Santorum can leverage his momentum into gaining delegates in the face of a disciplined Mitt Romney campaign ever focused on the end game.
Can Santorum leverage his momentum into delegates?
Although the victories were well received by Santorum and his supporters, he still didn't immediately walk away with any delegates for his efforts. The delegates in the three states posting Santorum wins – Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri – will be decided at a later date and may not completely reflect last night's vote count. The Santorum camp will be hard at work to convert their momentum into tangible GOP convention votes.
For example, Colorado's 36 delegates will be chosen at district and state conventions that will take place from March 31 until April 14. Minnesota's 40 delegates won't be chosen until mid to late April and even then delegates are not bound to a candidate unless the convention passes a resolution binding them.
Santorum can't simply thank the voters in the three states but must keep his focus on bringing as many delegates into his column as possible between now and then.
In the meantime, Santorum will use his new burst of media attention to remind voters that Romney is not a true conservative and won't stand firm on the major social issues and on repealing the president's controversial health care plan.
"Mitt Romney has the same positions as Barack Obama," Santorum told a Tuesday night election crowd in St. Charles, Mo. "He would not be the best voice to fight for America."
In addition, Santorum and his surrogates can now tell voters that he has won four out of the last eight contests, including the first one.
Political pundits see Santorum's biggest challenge as convincing the GOP faithful that he is more than a social crusader, and can go head-to-head with Obama on economic and national security issues. Some pundits are arguing that Santorum should begin taking Obama on immediately. "This is a great time to pick a fight with Obama on foreign policy," said former Minnesota GOP chairman Charles Slocum.
Romney is determined to stay on message
Meanwhile, Romney supporters are taking the long view, and doubling down on the campaign's strategy to focus on delegates, not beauty contests. Looking to avert some of the damage that the campaign saw coming, Romney political director Rich Beeson sent a memo late Tuesday reminding everyone the process will not end quickly.
"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."
Romney senior adviser Stuart Stevens told CNN: "We'd like to win everywhere, but you can't. And we've focused on key states for how we see a path to the nomination."
Moving forward, the Romney campaign is now regrouping and refining their message of convincing voters that Obama is the target and that Romney's combined business and political background is better suited for a November showdown with the president on the economy.
Romney will likely attack Santorum by linking him with Obama as a Washington insider." Look, I just don't think it's a time when people are looking to Washington to solve problems with Washington," said Stevens, referring to Santorum.
Politico columnist Mike Allen speculated on what the Romney campaign might be thinking this morning:
"It's about delegates. We could have made the decision to spend money, resources [in Colo. and Minn.], but we had to be pretty tough-minded about it -- just to be focused on the delegates, and on Super Tuesday [March 6]. We could have run television, run radio, or spent more time. You can't do everything. You gotta run your race. We'll wake up tomorrow, focused on winning Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Super Tuesday. Hats off to Santorum: It's a really good night for Santorum. It's a really BAD night for Newt."
The Romney campaign is eyeing the Maine caucus this Saturday, but more so, looking ahead to the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Feb. 28. In the latest Rasmussen Reports poll, Romney holds a commanding lead in both states.
Romney's deep campaign account and the super PAC that is pouring money into television and radio ads will test Santorum's organization and fundraising capabilities. When the real "Super Tuesday" rolls around on March 6, 10 states will hold contests where a staggering 437 delegates will be at stake.
Assuming delegate votes come together as the caucuses and elections are predicting, Romney maintains the lead with 87 delegates, Santorum is now in second with 35, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has 32 and Texas Congressman Ron Paul has 13.