(Photo: REUTERS/Eric Thayer)
Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was once seen as the main contender to Mitt Romney. But Gingrich finished in third or fourth place in each of Tuesday's three contests, signaling a collapse in support that Rick Santorum was able to capitalize on.
Santorum swept Tuesday's contests, winning all three states: Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota. The former Pennsylvania senator's victories flies in the face of Gingrich, who had prematurely declared after his distant second place finish in Florida that, "It is now clear that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate, and the voters of Florida made that clear."
A Santorum campaign official sees Santorum's rise in terms of Gingrich's loss, according to Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner. Conversations with politicos in Minnesota became "more of an assessment of Gingrich that if we really want a conservative who is the whole package, Santorum is our guy," the official stated.
Support for Gingrich has dropped 14 percentage points in two weeks. A nationwide Rasmussen Reports poll conducted on Monday shows Romney leading Gingrich by seven percentage points. In the same poll two weeks ago, Gingrich was leading by seven percentage points.
Romney had 34 percent of the vote, followed by Gingrich (27 percent), Santorum (18 percent) and Paul (11 percent) in Monday's poll of 1,000 likely Republican primary voters. (Ten percent of respondents were undecided and the margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points.)
In Colorado, where Santorum had a surprise victory, Gingrich finished third with only 12.8 percent vote, ahead of Ron Paul by less than 1,000 votes. In Minnesota, he placed fourth, and in Missouri he failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot.
Gingrich won the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary with 40 percent of the vote and shot to the lead in national polls. His surge came after two strong debate performances. He bashed the media and debate moderators for raising questions about his marital infidelities and whether he used coded language, appealing to racist sentiments when he called President Obama a "food stamp president." Gingrich also attacked Romney for his work as a venture capitalist and having offshore savings accounts.
In the next debate, Romney was prepared for Gingrich's attacks. After Gingrich noted that Romney investments had stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Romney retorted, "Mr. Speaker, ... have you checked your own investments?" and explained that Gingrich also owned mutual funds that had invested in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Romney's attacks on Gingrich in that debate were mostly counterattacks against Gingrich's accusations, such as an ad calling Romney "anti-immigrant." Gingrich would later say that he performed poorly in that debate because he was caught off guard by Romney's negative attacks, which he called "blatantly dishonest."
Besides besting Gingrich at his main strength – the debates – the Romney campaign and the Romney super-PAC spent most of its money, over $15 million, on campaign ads attacking Gingrich in Florida. By some estimates, the Gingrich campaign was outspent five to one.
For the two weeks following his South Carolina victory, Gingrich spent most of his opportunities with the media complaining about Romney rather than discussing his platform. The word "whiny" came to be used often among pundits describing his campaign.
The Gingrich campaign is also currently in debt by about $600,000. The campaign has benefited from a super-PAC that is mostly financed by one wealthy family, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, but there is no guarantee those funds will continue.
For voters looking for an alternative to Romney, Gingrich is looking less viable than he did after South Carolina. That leaves only two non-Romney choices: Santorum and Paul. Paul will likely continue to do well among voters that prefer a reduced military presence around the globe. For the rest, Santorum will likely capitalize on Gingrich's collapse.
"The next big test will be to see if and how Santorum can build on his sweep in Arizona and Michigan," Ed Morrissey writes for HotAir.com. "Romney had big leads in both, with Santorum in third place behind Gingrich. ... If nothing else, this is a very good time for a shoestring campaign to catch fire."