So what happened last night? Is Rick Santorum suddenly the GOP frontrunner? Well, let’s look at yesterday’s contests and what might happen next.
Missouri’s beauty pageant was a nice, if ultimately meaningless win — although the magnitude of it should give Mitt Romney pause. Still, I grew up in the Show-Me State, and voters there tend to be very Catholic and quite conservative — and that’s just the Democrats. Santorum came in with a strong hand, and played it perfectly.
Colorado held a caucus, which tends to bring out the less-moderate voters. That’s never a plus for Romney. My next of the woods, El Paso County, is the heart of the state GOP. It’s evangelical and very socially conservative, and not at all comfortable with Romney. We also just had our third (fourth?) snow storm in the last six days. Only the most energized voters bothered to caucus, and that ain’t exactly Team Romney. The moderate wing of the state GOP has also been slaughtered in recent years, in a fratricidal mess the likes of which I’ve never seen before firsthand. Calling it “ugly” is calling Ava Gardner “pleasant to look at.”
Minnesota is more difficult to explain. Honestly, I figured the moderates would hold sway there, giving Romney a nice plurality. That so did not happen. It looks instead like Santorum might be cementing himself as either the Midwest Candidate or the Small State Candidate — or perhaps both. He could keep racking up some impressive caucus wins, and be a real force at the convention.
Does that mean I don’t see him as the nominee? That’s exactly right, and I’ll tell you why.
Romney didn’t get caught exactly by surprise in South Carolina. As I’ve written here before, losing there was always part of the gameplan, with Florida as his backstop. So far, so good. What did, I think, catch Team Romney by surprise was the sudden swift rise of Newt Gingrich as the non-Romney flavor du jour. Surely, Santorum’s Tuesday Trifecta must come as an equal shock.
So now Santorum will have to deal with something new. So far, he’s run a scrappy campaign where Romney could afford to mostly ignore him. That’s about to change. I posted on Twitter last night:
Santorum’s next challenge: The Romney machine that is about to come down on him like it came down on Gingrich after South Carolina.
Santorum hasn’t had to face that yet, and he’d best start raising (and spending) some serious money if he’s going to combat it. Gingrich was absolutely pummeled by attack ads in Florida, and they brought his campaign to a screeching halt. The former frontrunner wasn’t even a factor in yesterday’s races.
The next stop is Maine’s weird week-long caucus. It’s a small state, so a scrappy little campaign can fight there. But it could also prove an expensive diversion, with Arizona and Michigan coming up shortly after. Then comes Super Tuesday, where money and organization –perhaps Romney’s only real strengths — will mean much, if not everything.
Does Santorum have a path to victory? If he can win Maine, Arizona, and Michigan — then maybe, yes. But it’s still a longshot.