Politics

02.08.12

Rick Santorum Reshuffles the GOP Primary Deck With MN, MO Wins

With wins in Minnesota and Missouri and a tight finish in Colorado, Rick Santorum proves he’s the most attractive not-Romney in the GOP field. Who’s going to break it to Newt?

Wowzer. Has there ever been a primary night that amassed fewer delegates but had greater potential to redefine the field?

Colorado. Minnesota. Missouri. Two nonbinding straw polls and one utterly pointless beauty pageant of a primary. (Missouri will choose delegates at a March 17 caucus.)

And yet, this was it. Rick Santorum’s big night. His chance to shine. The last, best opportunity for the man who single-handedly breathed life back into the sweater-vest industry to show that he is the most attractive not-Romney in this race. To persuade the world that he is the candidate to unite all those restless, questing conservatives—instead of that porridge-headed dilettante of an ex-speaker.

Boy oh boy, did Santorum deliver.

For weeks now, Newt Gingrich has been whinging about how swell his electoral prospects would be if only Santorum would step aside and let him go head-to-head with Mittens. On Tuesday night, Santorum stuffed that argument down Gingrich’s gullet with a side of bacon.

Heck, even Romney must be a little shaken in the face of the numbers.

Missouri was the must-win for Santorum: the Republican electorate there is both populist and conservative, with deep pockets of evangelical fervor. No one but Santorum bothered to play in the state. Gingrich wasn’t even on the ballot. A double-digit win was totally within the senator’s grasp. But Santorum cruised to 55.2 percent, with Mitt languishing at 25.3 percent? That’s what is known in the industry as a serious shellacking.

A double-digit loss to Santorum stings. A double-digit loss to Santorum and Paul is like pouring Johnnie Walker Black on a paper cut.

Minnesota was less of a gimme, though Santorum’s odd were good. In this case, Santorum received a major assist from Ron Paul, who left Romney floundering in an embarrassingly weak third. A double-digit loss to Santorum stings. A double-digit loss to Santorum and Paul is like pouring Johnnie Walker Black on a paper cut.

Everyone kinda assumed Colorado would go for Romney. Full disclosure: I packed it in with the majority of precincts yet to report. But as of shortly after midnight, Santorum and Romney were neck and neck—and Romney’s odds on InTrade had plunged from 90+ percent down to the low 20s. No way this was supposed to happen.

So where do the evening’s returns leave us? With a Republican frontrunner weaker than a happy-hour margarita and a significantly reshuffled deck of challengers.

Lots of questions going forward: How will the GOP establishment handle Santorum’s big night? Will they cheer him for bringing Gingrich down a peg, attack him for spotlighting Romney’s stubborn vulnerabilities, or ignore him altogether? Which Romney staffer/s will take the fall for Tuesday night’s high-profile humiliation?

Perhaps most important of all, who’s going to tell Gingrich it’s time to pack it in?

Sheldon?