Triple victory for Santorum again upends GOP presidential race

Buoyed by strong wins in three contests that again upended the turbulent GOP presidential race, Rick Santorum declared Wednesday that his underdog campaign was raising money faster than ever before and would have enough “to make the case we want to make.”

Santorum gave a series of upbeat interviews on morning television news shows, dismissing GOP front-runner Mitt Romney as unprincipled and unable to win and touting himself as the conservative candidate with the best chance to deny a second term to President Obama.

“We felt it coming,” Santorum told Fox News’s Fox and Friends, referring to his upset victories in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. “We felt that people were understanding that we had the record and the best vision to go up against President Obama. We will make him the issue in this race.”

Although none of Tuesday’s results are binding, Santorum’s triumphs will — at least temporarily — alter the face of the campaign going into the crucial “Super Tuesday” contests.

Romney and his allies have signaled that they will use their financial advantage to launch stepped-up attacks on Santorum and on former House speaker Newt Gingrich, the other main challenger. Gingrich was not on the ballot in Missouri, and he trailed far behind Romney and Santorum in Minnesota and Colorado. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) placed second in Minnesota but garnered just 12 percent of the vote in both Colorado and Missouri.

But Santorum said Wednesday that his campaign would compete hard in Michigan on Feb. 28 and in the March 6 “Super Tuesday” states. He said his campaign raised about $250,000 online Tuesday night but insisted that funding alone was not the key to the race.

“If money made the difference, we wouldn’t have won four primaries so far,” Santorum, who also finished eight votes ahead of Romney in the Iowa caucus, told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien. “We’re not running for CEO of this country – we’re running for someone who can lead this country.”

He shrugged off Romney’s recent criticism of himself and Gingrich as politicians tainted by years inside the Beltway, noting that Romney ran for both the Senate and the White House in the past, losing both times. “It’s not that Governor Romney didn’t want to be Senator Romney. He tried to be Senator Romney ... but he lost, and he lost badly,” Santorum said.

He said his defeat by 19 points when he ran for a second Senate term should not be something voters hold against him. “A lot of folks lose races,” Santorum said. “What I didn’t lose, unlike Governor Romney, was my principles. I stood up for what I believed in.”

Romney’s poor showing Tuesday raised anew the question that has dogged his candidacy all along: Can the relatively moderate former Massachusetts governor become an acceptable standard-bearer of a party that is increasingly dominated by evangelical conservatives and tea party activists who have long been skeptical of Romney?

After big wins in Florida and Nevada, Romney had hoped to extend his winning streak as he moved to strengthen his claim to the mantle of presumptive nominee. He enjoyed strong establishment backing in Minnesota, with the vocal support of former governor Tim Pawlenty, yet he trailed not just Santorum but also Paul, finishing a distant third.

Addressing supporters in Denver on Tuesday night, Romney congratulated Santorum and insisted that he still expects to eventually become the nominee.

“We’re going to take our message of liberty and prosperity to every corner of the country, and when this primary season is over, we’re going to stand united as a party behind our nominee to defeat Barack Obama,” Romney said.

Paul, who has yet to secure a win in the 2012 sweepstakes, mobilized his loyal support networks in the three states and was banking on low turnout in the nonbinding contests to give him a win. But he finished third in Missouri and was trailing in Colorado.

Gingrich did not compete in Missouri and spent limited time in Colorado and Minnesota. He looked past Tuesday’s contests and instead campaigned in Ohio, one of several delegate-rich states voting on Super Tuesday.

Together, the three states voting Tuesday will eventually award 128 delegates. But Missouri was a “beauty contest” with no delegates at stake, while Minnesota and Colorado were nonbinding events with delegates to be chosen this spring.

At stake Tuesday night was the prestige of winning. And Santorum nailed down three upsets to restore an air of viability to his candidacy.

By defeating Romney, Santorum believes, he can reset the race and help create the perception that he, and not Gingrich, is the conservative alternative to the establishment front-runner.

“Conservatism is alive and well,” Santorum told supporters at his election night party in Missouri. “I don’t stand here and claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

Recognizing the Santorum threat, Romney and his supporters attacked the former senator the past few days over his support for congressional earmarks. Romney shifted his efforts in recent days to Colorado, where he has a deeper ground organization and won the 2008 caucuses with 60 percent of the vote.

The Minnesota and Missouri contests were early barometers of Romney’s support in some of the key Midwestern states he would need to win in a general election against President Obama. And Colorado is thought of as a critical battleground; Obama’s campaign advisers consider it a must-win.

The candidates spent considerably less money and time in these three states than in the contests that preceded them in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada; now the race enters a February lull. After the Maine caucuses, which will end on Saturday, there are no primaries or caucuses until primaries on Feb. 28 in Arizona and Michigan, two states that will generate intense engagement from all the candidates. Romney, in particular, is planning to compete aggressively in both.

Romney officials labored to preserve an aura of inevitability around his campaign, releasing a strategy memorandum Tuesday promoting the former Massachusetts governor’s financial and organizational advantage over the long haul.

“Mitt Romney is the only candidate with the organizational strength and broad-based appeal to secure delegates in all remaining primaries and caucuses,” national political director Rich Beeson wrote. “Of course, there is no way for any nominee to win first place in every single contest — John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents to notch a few wins too.”

Henderson reported from Ohio. Wilgoren reported from Washington.

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