Santorum began this contest as the man of the hour, the little engine that could in a sweater-vest who challenged and beat the much-better-funded Mitt Romney . . . and yet he has, at the moment, an entire three delegates committed to him. (Iowa’s delegates to the national convention will formally be selected at a state convention on June 16.)
Santorum won no more than 17 percent in any of the subsequent contests, until last night, and he finished with a disappointing 10 percent in Nevada’s caucuses Saturday. Gingrich has declared, with increasing loudness and insistence, that the former Pennsylvania senator should leave the race to unite conservatives behind his candidacy.
Thirty-five days after the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum needed a win — even a purely symbolic win — to remind Republicans nationwide that he was still a serious contender. Tuesday night, he got it. Missouri was called for him first, shortly thereafter Minnesota followed, and in Colorado he looked likely to finish no worse than a close second. His two wins were landslides. [Three, really; at the time of writing, Colorado was much closer.]
For conservatives hoping to unite behind one Romney rival, Missouri offered a tantalizing look at what the race would be like if Gingrich and Santorum were not splitting that segment of the GOP electorate.
Gingrich was not listed on the Missouri ballot; he and his campaign said that they did not bother to qualify for it because they deemed the nonbinding contest irrelevant. Cynics may notice the Gingrich campaign’s inability to qualify for the ballot in Virginia and wonder just how deliberate their approach to Missouri was.
In the reduced field, Santorum didn’t just win, he thrashed Romney. With 90 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum led in every Missouri county that was reporting results.
Rick Santorum adviser John Brabender told CNBC’s John Harwood: “Missouri tells me that in a clean one-on-one against Romney, we beat him.” Expect to hear a lot of this argument from Santorum and his supporters. You’ll also hear quite a few assertions that Santorum has won four contests to Gingrich’s one; the former speaker and his backers will furiously dispute that any of tonight’s results count as legitimate wins.
“We doubled him up in Missouri and Minnesota!” Santorum exulted in his victory speech last night. He added, “In Massachusetts, your votes were particularly loud tonight!”
Of course, it seems hard to imagine Gingrich voluntarily leaving the race; last night, he told Wolf Blitzer: “I’m certainly in it all the way to the convention.”
Santorum’s support surged dramatically in the final days before the Iowa caucuses, as polling indicated the former senator had a chance to win and would not be regarded as a “wasted vote.” Perhaps the largest obstacle to Santorum’s campaign is clearing that psychological threshold nationally; if so, last night and its consequent surge of funds and volunteers should go a long way.