(Photo: REUTERS/Joe Skipper)
Presidential candidate Rick Santorum finished fourth in Saturday's Nevada caucus, but Tuesday's contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri are looking more favorable for the candidate. Will a strong showing on Tuesday help the candidate regain much needed momentum?
"A belated consensus has formed among pundits that Rick Santorum is now the final, viable not-Romney candidate left in the Republican presidential primary," conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote Monday.
In the most recent polls, conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP), Santorum is in second place in Colorado and is statistically tied with Mitt Romney for the lead in Minnesota. In Missouri, Santorum was in the lead in a poll conducted the previous weekend and Newt Gingrich is not on the ballot there.
Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, was polling at or near the bottom through most of last year, but a surprising victory in the Iowa caucus helped to keep his campaign going. He has not, however, won any contests since Iowa. Gingrich, rather than Santorum, rose to become the main rival to front-runner Romney after winning the South Carolina primary.
Gingrich's campaign appears to be collapsing, though, as it struggles with campaign debt and the perception that Gingrich has lost his focus on the issues – he often complains about how he is treated by the media, other candidates and fellow Republicans.
Based upon the PPP polls, Gingrich will likely place third or fourth in Colorado and Minnesota Tuesday. With a weak showing following Republicans saying that Gingrich's campaign is effectively over, Santorum could be viewed as the most viable alternative for voters who would prefer an alternative to Romney.
The Romney campaign apparently views Santorum as the most viable threat heading into Tuesday's contests as well. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, co-chair of the Romney campaign, held a conference call with reporters on Monday criticizing Santorum for his defense of earmarks while in Congress.
Santorum "has proudly and enthusiastically embraced earmarking," Pawlenty said. He also pointed out Santorum's votes to raise the nation's debt ceiling and said that "he has clearly been part of the big spending establishment in Congress and in the influence peddling industry that surrounds Congress."
Earmarks do not increase government spending. Rather, they designate where spending that was already appropriated will be spent. In particular, it keeps that decision in the hands of the legislative branch rather than the executive branch or government bureaucracy. Paul, a Texas congressman, takes essentially the same position as Santorum on earmarks.
When asked why he opposed earmarks, Pawlenty said that earmarks represent spending on misplaced priorities and lead to government corruption.
On Monday the Santorum campaign responded to the Romney campaign by saying, "Mitt Romney's act is tired, old and wearing thin with voters and I suspect at this point, with the media too. Romney never touts his own record – because it's abysmal. In the Republican Party we have a name for someone who supports government health care mandates, big bank bailouts, and radical cap and trade initiatives – we call them Democrats."
Santorum is a solid conservative, good debater and has high favorability ratings among Republicans, Rubin wrote. But any surge at this point could be too late. Even with victories on Tuesday, Rubin admitted, Santorum would still be a long shot to win the nomination.