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What Rick Santorum can win on Tuesday

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Rick Santorum may actually win a state or two today. But does it really mean anything?

Mitt Romney’s campaign set about turning aside a possible surge by Santorum on Monday, holding a conference call and beginning a push to attack the former Pennsylvania senator for a history of earmarking.

All of it came on the eve of three less-prominent contests held Tuesday that Santorum is banking on to make him relevant again in the presidential contest — the Colorado caucuses, the Minnesota caucuses and the Missouri primary.

And Romney’s team, while downplaying the significance of Tuesday’s contests, seemed acutely aware that the narrative could get away from it if Santorum wins a state or two.

It all sets to stage for one of the biggest spin wars of the 2012 campaign, in which the results matter about as much as how they will be interpreted.

The biggest threat to the Romney inevitability theme appears to be in Missouri, where Newt Gingrich didn’t qualify for the ballot, leaving Santorum with more of a head-to-head matchup with Romney.

Santorum has used this convenient setup to turn the race into potential proof that he could compete with Romney if Gingrich were to drop out of the race.

That’s a fine strategy, except for a few things.

White House hopeful Rick Santorum poses for a picture with supporters after a rally Sunday in Waconia, Minn. (AFP PHOTO/Getty Images/ Mira OBERMAN)

First, Missouri is awarding no delegates based on the results of the primary (instead, it will do so following March 17 caucuses). Thus, today’s contest has absolutely no actual bearing on the GOP presidential contest.

Second, because there are no delegates at stake, Romney has put forth basically no effort in the state and has no staff on the ground there.

And third, it’s one of just two February states that Romney lost in 2008 (he won the other five). And it and the other state Santorum might win today — Minnesota — both border the only other state he has won, Iowa. So it’s little harder to argue that this is evidence of Santorum's broader nationwide appeal.

Whatever momentum Santorum might be able to cull from Missouri, it will certainly be tempered by the facts listed above. And presidential elections are inherently a negotiated expectations game — which is why Romney’s team came out so forcefully on Monday to set the terms of Tuesday’s results.

By essentially investing nothing in the beauty contest of a primary in Missouri, Romney’s team has lowered expectations to the lowest possible level, which severely limits whatever bump Santorum may be able to salvage.

GOP consultant Dan Hazelwood said Santorum is grasping at straws.

“Santorum is the last viable challenger and is looking for every angle to breath life into his campaign,” Hazelwood said. “You admire the effort, but the outcome is now written: Romney.”

That said, Romney’s inevitability is so ingrained right now that doing anything to call it into question could be helpful to Santorum. And the more success Santorum can have in today’s contests, the more doubt there will be about Romney’s impending nomination.

This is why we saw such pushback from the Romney team on Monday. The Romney folks aren’t worried about Santorum turning the race on its head — the stakes aren’t that high — but the fact that he could do anything to again call into question Romney’s impending victory is reason to tread cautiously.

The Republican National Committee gave Romney an assist Monday, clarifying that, like Missouri, the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses technically have no bearing on delegates either.

Then again, neither did Iowa, which was also non-binding.

But if Santorum were to win two of the three states today — Missouri and Minnesota — it would certainly be difficult to ignore.

Texas compromise reached? Maybe: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) released a compromise congressional redistricting map Monday that he hoped might avert moving the state’s primary, but it appears to have hit a roadblock.

Despite Abbott’s indications that the new map was a compromise with key Hispanic groups, two of the biggest Hispanic groups — the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the League of United Latin American Citizens — both said the map did not represent a final product.

“There is no agreement,” said LULAC attorney Luis Vera.

And later Monday, a federal judge said the compromise didn’t pass muster, issuing a court order and sending all parties back to the negotiating table.

The proposed map looks a lot like the map the GOP-controlled state legislature passed earlier this year, in that it overhauls Rep. Lloyd Doggett’s (D-Texas) district to make it much more Republican.

But in the state’s four new districts, it creates three majority-Hispanic districts and one strongly Republican district, rather than two and two as the GOP’s initial map proposed. One of the majority-Hispanic districts is a swing district.

The GOP legislature’s map is caught up in a court case, and an interim map proposed by a three-judge panel was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said the panel’s map needed to look more like the state legislature’s map.

The proposed compromise map would be in effect for the 2012 election.

Texas’s primary is set for April 3 but will likely have to be moved for the second time as the court battle persists.

Washington Post runs expose on earmarks: The Washington Post is out with a new, in-depth look at the congressional earmarking process, pointing to 33 lawmakers who have steered $300 million to projects within a couple miles of their own investment properties.

The process is legal, but following a recent “60 Minutes” report on alleged congressional insider trading, there is increased focus on lawmakers enriching themselves while in office.

The detail in the report is unprecedented in its scope and is the result of months of research. Be sure to check it out at PostPolitics.com

Fixbits:

Santorum makes his closing argument on health care.

The many logos that look like a lot like Romney’s logo.

Is Gingrich easing up on Romney?

Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White (R) has been convicted of six counts of corruption Monday, including three counts of voter fraud.

The matchup between freshman Reps. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) and Dave Schweikert (R-Ariz.) is official. Quayle confirmed Monday that he will run in the state’s new 6th district rather than the more difficult but open 9th district.

Rep. Vern Buchanan’s (R-Fla.) ethics problems persist.

Must-reads:

Secret money is funding more election ads” — Dan Eggen, Washington Post

What we learned from Nevada” — Nate Silver, New York Times

Fading Newt Gingrich playing for one more comeback” — Paul West, Los Angeles Times

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