E ven if you just tuned in long enough Tuesday night to see his victory speech in a half-empty Denver ballroom, you could tell Mitt Romney had a bad night. If you started watching just a bit earlier, you saw him lose Minnesota, a state he won in 2008. You saw him trailing in every county in Missouri on his way to a bruising loss there. And a few minutes later, you saw him lose in Colorado - a state he dominated in 2008, when his 60% of the vote was more than three times the share of runner-up John McCain.
Based on his 2008 results, Republicans were feeling good about taking back the state this fall, with Romney at the top of the ticket. And heading into Tuesday, Romney could afford to think about pivoting to more of a general election-orientation. No more.
Romney’s loss in Missouri wasn’t unexpected; it’s a state he didn’t win four years ago, with a major evangelical bloc - the ideal audience for Rick Santorum’s pitch – and its accidental “beauty contest” primary this year made it an easy write-off. (Gingrich didn’t even bother getting on the ballot.) Minnesota’s a quirky contest; Romney won it four years ago, but it was seen as anyone’s game.
Colorado was different – which is why the Romney campaign had downplayed the other votes, telling reporters to focus on the state. And that’s what made a Romney loss there all the more damaging. The big question now: how much of Romney’s win four years ago was due to his status as the top alternative to the frontrunner – the role played last night by Santorum. This morning, Romney’s campaign, which had come out swinging against Santorum over the past day or two, focused its fire on Newt Gingrich instead. Maintaining Gingrich’s status as a top conservative contender – keeping the anti-Romney vote as divided as possible – just got a whole lot more important for the former Massachusetts governor.
But Romney wasn’t last night’s biggest loser; that title is actually still up for grabs. Ron Paul’s caucus strategy is in shambles; he’s yet to win a state, and the odds are growing slimmer by the contest. But Gingrich had more to lose heading into Tuesday night; he had to score a win somewhere, or at least a close second with Romney in the top spot, to hold on to his title as the designated anti-Romney candidate – and to keep the money flowing to his cash-starved campaign. Santorum blew a hole in both Romney’s aura of inevitability as the nominee, and Gingrich’s as the logical conservative alternative.
We’re now heading into a weeks-long stretch with no big, delegate-rich contests or debates – several weeks where Santorum’s big night will play an outsized role on the narrative. Last night, as his Super PAC’s top funder, Foster Friess, beamed behind him on stage, money started flowing into his campaign coffers – as much as a quarter of a million dollars by morning, according to Santorum aides. Today, he heads to Texas, to make his pitch to deep-pocketed donors – an argument that just grew a whole lot stronger. It may not be enough to nab him the nomination. But it’s enough to make February a whole lot tougher for the rest of the field.
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