There are a number of ways to spin it away or place an asterisk next to it, but the fact is unavoidable: Rick Santorum has won more nominating contests than any other candidate in the Republican presidential race.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, swept frontrunner Mitt Romney in three states Tuesday, winning caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, as well as a presidential preference primary in Missouri. On one level, these results scrambled once again the GOP race, bringing the potential for chaos, and on another they returned it to a familiar storyline: the struggle of conservative elements in the party’s base to overcome misgivings about Romney and get in line, or instead settle on a viable alternative.
It was a breakthrough for the former Pennsylvania senator, who had been an afterthought since a razor close victory in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3. Now he faces the twin challenges of needing to broaden his coalition and increase his fundraising, to try to prove he can hang with the well-financed and organized Romney campaign.
There are no contests until the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Feb. 28.
No actual delegates were at stake Tuesday. Missouri’s primary was a so-called “beauty contest,” a chance for Republican activists to express their preferences for a nominee, and the results in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses merely kicked off multi-stage processes of selecting delegates for the GOP convention in Tampa this summer, and are not binding on those choices, made in county and state conventions later.
But perceptions, obviously, matter.
It's clear there was an embarrassing fall-off in support for Romney that could be hard to explain away.
In Colorado four years ago, Romney won about 42,000 votes out of 70,000 cast. On Tuesday, he captured 23,000 out of 65,000.
In the 2008 Missouri primary, in which delegates were at stake and which fell on Super Tuesday, got about 172,000 votes out of 589,000 cast. Last night, Romney got around 64,000 out of roughly 233,000.
And in Minnesota, it was 26,000/63,000 for Romney in 2008 and 8,000/47,000 for Romney on Tuesday.
Including his victory in Iowa, Santorum has now won four contests. Romney has won three (NH, Florida and Nevada) and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker has finished on top in one (South Carolina).