(Photo: REUTERS/Sarah Conard)
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had his best day yet in the 2012 campaign season by winning a trio of races in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota. His only problem was he took home no delegates for his efforts.
Santorum, who had lost momentum after his early success in the Iowa caucuses sought to send a message to voters looking for a real conservative.
"Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota," Santorum said at a victory rally in St. Charles, Mo., Tuesday. "I don't stand here to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."
Santorum's wins are "very big," said the University of Virginia Public Policy Institute's Larry Sabato on Fox News Tuesday morning. "This sends a clear message to Romney that many in the party are still not excited about his campaign."
Polls leading up to the contests had Santorum leading in Minnesota and Missouri, but Colorado was an unexpected surprise since Romney was expected to win there. The latest PPD poll had Romney leading 37 to 27 percent just days before the state's caucus. Santorum ended up with a four point victory, coming in with 40 percent to Romney's 35 percent with all of the boxes in.
But Missouri was Santorum's biggest win of the night where he defeated Romney by a commanding margin with 55 percent of the vote, compared to Romney with 25 percent and Texas Congressman Ron Paul with 12 percent. The Gingrich campaign made a decision not to compete in the Show-Me state since delegates will not be assigned there until mid-March.
Romney, who carried Minnesota's caucuses in 2008 and has the endorsement of former governor and GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, came in a disappointing third, with 17 percent of the vote. Santorum led with about 45 percent and Paul with 27 percent. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was fourth with 11 percent. Vote totals were still being tabulated at the time of publication.
In spite of his big wins, strategists agree that Santorum needs to take advantage of his new momentum if he is going to overtake Romney in the delegate count.
"He needs to capitalize on [his victories] from a fundraising perspective and I anticipate that he will do that," GOP strategist Nick Ryan, who raises money for Santorum's PAC, told Politico. "And they need to be methodical and disciplined about how they play. I'd be very, very careful about Michigan and Arizona (the next two primaries) because they are just cash-suckers."
The only downside to Santorum's big victories is that he took home no delegates for his efforts. Each state will award delegates, but Colorado and Minnesota were non-binding contests and Missouri had no delegates at stake. This means that Santorum and Romney will still be wooing delegates before they officially commit to a candidate.
The next contest is the Maine caucus on Saturday.