Upset in Republican contest:

Santorum hat-trick derails Romney hopes

 

Denver, Colorado

A stunning mutiny by evangelical and conservative Republicans punctured the tyres of the supposed frontrunner Mitt Romney in last night’s trio of nomination contests and instead gave a sudden and barely expected jolt of adrenalin to the staunch social conservative in the race, Rick Santorum.

Mr Romney’s crown of inevitably was knocked severely askew after Mr Santorum was declared the winner in caucus voting in Minnesota and the victor by a huge margin also of non-binding primary voting in Missouri, a key swing state.  After hours of suspense, Republican officials also called him the winner by a thin margin in Colorado, giving him an entirely remarkable clean sweep of all three states.

The unexpected defeat in Colorado, by 35 per cent to 40 per cent to Mr Santorum, is an incalculable disaster for Mr Romney who had worked and spent hard here and had considered the state a safe haven even if things went badly elsewhere.  He has also been outspending his rivals by about 5 to 1 in advertising.

“The Romney bandwagon just went into a ditch,” former White House advisor David Gergen commented.   The only other person with reason to smile aside from Mr Santorum was surely Barack Obama who cannot have dreamed that the Republican contest would turn out to be so chaotic.

As of today, Mr Santorum has won four states in this marathon against three for Mr Romney, thus completely upending the assumptions of where it was headed.  Some will quibble that Missouri was a non-binding result, but the psychological impact of this shift will be very significant.

In Colorado Mr Romney’s loss was in stark contrast to four years ago when he handily took the state competing with John McCain for the Republican nomination  It was a relatively good night for Ron Paul, the small-government libertarian who posted an impressive second place in Minnesota, ahead of Mr Romney.  Newt Gingrich was not on the ballot in Missouri and all but vanished in the other two states.

A few things happened this week to help deepen conservative wrath and might have helped Mr Santorum. A California court overturned a ban on gay marriage in that state and President Barack Obama took heavy fire for a regulation requiring catholic hospitals to provide contraceptive medicines in some circumstances.  Mr Romney has also taken heat for a similar stance taken while Governor of Massachusetts.

“I don’t stand here to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama,” Mr Santorum, a former US Senator from Pennsylvania who is radically anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, declared at a victory rally in St Charles, Missouri.

Last night’s results were a sharp reminder that the anger among grassroots Republicans that spawned the Tea Party has not disappeared; that creates obstacles for an establishment figure like Mr Romney.  It also means that predicting the outcome of the nomination struggle remains a risky game.  “Tonight was a victory for the voices of our party, conservatives and tea party people,” Mr Santorum said.

With red in his eyes and using a teleprompter that look especially superfluous in a room of barely two hundred people here in Denver, Mr Romney congratulated Mr Santorum even before the results from Colorado were in.  Shortly after speaking, he narrowly escaped being showered in silver confetti by a gay rights protester in the hall who was muscled out instantly by Secret Service agents.

In Minnesota and in Missouri the victories for Mr Santorum, who has been running a shoestring campaign, was nothing if not overwhelming.  He trounced Mr Romney in the latter 55 per cent to 25 per cent.  In the former he won 45 per cent to 27 per cent for Mr Paul.  Mr Romney, who cancelled a visit to the state this week at the last moment, was third with a humble 17 per cent in spite of the backing their of former governor and candidate Tim Pawlenty.

This morning, the candidates will fan in all directions ahead of Super Tuesday on 6 March when 11 critical states will vote.  In the meantime, Mr Santorum can expect an immediate shellacking of negative advertising from the cash-rich camp Romney.  On the flipside, he can also expect suddenly to take in a flurry of cheques as conservative backers begin to consider that he, not Mr Gingrich, is the horse to back to block Mr Romney.

Indeed, if this extraordinary nomination has show anything it is that each time a candidate seems to win momentum it is suddenly taken away again.  Mr Romney lost it to Mr Gingrich in South Carolina and then won it back in Florida and Nevada.  And now the momentum shifts to Mr Santorum.  But there is no reason to assume he can now keep it and still Mr Romney has several advantages going forward.

Ominously for Mr Romney and for the Republican Party as a whole turnout in Colorado was lower than in 2008 as it was last weekend in Nevada.  It was a cold nigh here with ice and snow on the roads, but it has to suggest that there is a dangerous enthusiasm deficit for these candidates.

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