Feb. 8 (Bloomberg) — Rick Santorum shook up the race for the Republican presidential nomination by sweeping three contests yesterday, casting doubt on front-runner Mitt Romney's hold over the party's core voters.
Santorum beat Romney by 30 percentage points in Missouri's non-binding primary, where former U.S. Speaker Newt Gingrich wasn't on the ballot. He topped his nearest competitor in Minnesota's caucuses, U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, by 18 points, with Romney placing third. He beat Romney in Colorado by five points.
The results suggest a lingering weakness for Romney, especially among the most conservative Republicans who are focused on issues such as banning abortion. At the same time, Santorum's new strength may aid Romney in a prolonged fight for the nomination. A revitalized Santorum campaign may mean that he and Gingrich will continue to split the anti-Romney vote, leaving neither with a commanding count of delegates.
Santorum, 53, now has four victories in the nomination race, while Romney has three. Santorum last night told supporters in St. Charles, Missouri, that he was the candidate best suited to take on President Barack Obama in November's general election.
"Mitt Romney has the same positions as Barack Obama," the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania said. "I don't stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."
"We definitely are the campaign right now with the momentum," Santorum said today on CNN. "We're doing very, very well raising money," with about $250,000 raised online last night, he said.
Romney, 64, told supporters in Denver last night that he was focused on the contests to come.
"This was a good night for Rick Santorum," the former Massachusetts governor said. "We'll keep on campaigning down the road, but I expect to become our nominee, with your help."
Santorum won 55 percent of the vote in Missouri's non- binding primary with all precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. Romney had 25 percent and Paul had 12 percent.
In Minnesota's caucuses, Santorum led with 45 percent of the vote with 91 percent of precincts reporting in the AP tally. Paul had 27 percent, followed by Romney with 17 percent and Gingrich with 11 percent.
Paul Sees 'Momentum'
Paul, 76, told supporters in Golden Valley, Minnesota, his second-place finish should earn him a cache of delegates.
"It's the cause of liberty that we must restore, and we are well on our way, and we're going to keep this momentum," he said.
In Colorado, Santorum had 40 percent of the vote, with all precincts reporting in the AP tally. Romney had 35 percent, followed by Gingrich with 13 percent and Paul with 12 percent.
The Minnesota and Colorado caucuses represent the first step toward awarding convention delegates, though yesterday's results are non-binding on that process. Missouri's primary is a symbolic, so-called beauty contest; the state's delegates will be allocated at caucuses later this year.
While no delegates were immediately awarded, the outcomes slow Romney's momentum and offers openings to rivals. Romney had reclaimed the mantle of front-runner after easily winning the two previous contests, Florida's Jan. 31 primary and Nevada's Feb. 4 caucuses.
Romney also won the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary and Santorum got a victory in the Jan. 3 lead-off Iowa caucuses.