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Romney interrupted

Feb 8, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

A reporter summing up the Republican presidential primaries as of Monday morning would have written something like this: Another week, another preliminary win for Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential nominating process. Saturday in Nevada, Romney got fully half the votes in a four-man race. That's the first time he's taken an absolute majority in any state, which will help him quell the nagging -- and accurate until now -- talk that even in the states he has won, more Republicans voted against him than for him. Nevada changed all that. Now we'll see whether Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri maintain the trend or reverse it again.

As of Wednesday morning, summing up the GOP nominating process reads this way: Just a few days after piling up an impressive win in the Nevada Republican caucuses, GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney's campaign bus blew a tire in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, and the man who threw the nails onto the highway was Rick Santorum.

After being left for dead in political terms even after the Iowa recount gave him a narrow victory there last month, Santorum emerged from the campaign coffin and won all three primary contests Tuesday, beating Romney overwhelmingly in Minnesota and Missouri and winning decisively in Colorado. Minnesota and Colorado, in particular, were states Romney counted on winning easily -- as he had done four years ago while battling John McCain for the nomination. Instead, he lost both -- and in Minnesota he finished a dismal third, well behind Ron Paul as well.

As Santorum floundered for weeks through Massachusetts, South Carolina, Florida and, most recently, Nevada, there were the expected calls from the cable TV and talk-radio "experts" for him to drop out of the race, along with questions as to why he didn't. The candidate himself almost seemed to be foretelling that very decision after the South Carolina primary, when he cozied up to Newt Gingrich, who had just won that state, congratulating his "friend Newt" and saying "Way to go, buddy." The analysts who watch campaigns through a microscope speculated that Santorum was trying to endear himself to Gingrich as a possible running mate. (It seems a long time ago already, but just a couple of weeks back it was Gingrich who appeared to have all the momentum.)

But now it sounds absurd for anyone to suggest that Santorum drop out. Winning Tuesday's three contests gives Santorum victories in four states to Romney's three. That is not the basis for dropping out of anything.

Romney still has a leg up in many respects. He is the most experienced campaigner. He has the best nationwide political organization. He has more delegates toward the nomination than his three remaining opponents combined, and he has an astronomical money advantage over Santorum heading toward the Michigan primary later in the month, where he is favored.

But as the campaign turns south again for the Super Tuesday primaries a month from now, territory where Santorum's brand of religious conservatism could play well, especially now that Gingrich is disappearing again, he is bound to pick up more money and attention.

Santorum delivered a psychological punch in the stomach to the supposed frontrunner Tuesday that, frankly, probably surprised Santorum as much as it did Romney. All those who were penciling in the word "inevitable" next to Mitt Romney have no choice but to get out their erasers, at least for awhile.

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