Three Middle-America Primaries Could Force Out One of Mitt Romney’s Rivals

Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri will determine whether Santorum, Paul, or Gingrich fades, says Ben Jacobs.

From left: Getty Images (2); AP Photo

Today will see three crucial contests in the GOP presidential primary. Although these races will not award a single delegate, they will determine the fate of one of the remaining four candidates. Rick Santorum’s low-key campaign needs to be successful tonight in at least one of the three states where voters will be expressing preferences—Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. The first two states, which are caucuses, will be crucial in determining if Santorum’s success organizing social conservatives and evangelicals in Iowa was a unique phenomenon or a sign of real appeal in Middle America. In Missouri, which is a nonbinding primary, Santorum will have his one opportunity to go head-to-head against Mitt Romney, as Newt Gingrich opted not to participate in this “beauty contest.”

The caucus states of Minnesota and Colorado will hold a presidential preference poll together with their precinct caucuses tonight. As with Iowa and Nevada, this will be only the first step in selecting delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, which allows plenty of opportunities for the estimated delegate tally reported tonight to change. But while both Minnesota and Colorado are swing states with large numbers of social conservatives, the caucuses in each state will have very different rules. The Colorado caucuses are closed and open only to registered Republicans, but Minnesota does not have party registration, and its caucuses will be open to all comers.

While Romney won landslide victories in both Minnesota and Colorado in 2008 (piling up 60 percent of the vote in the Rocky Mountain State), he will be lucky to pull out solid victories in both states this year. According to the most recent poll from Public Policy Polling, Santorum is up narrowly in Minnesota, and Romney has a healthy but not unshakable lead in Colorado—not too secure for Romney, despite his big win four years ago. Santorum has a built-in advantage in Colorado, where he has earned key endorsements from evangelicals, and where only registered Republicans can caucus. Romney has spent the past two days campaigning across Colorado in order to shore up his support and ensure a victory.

In Minnesota, the Romney campaign is already trying to tamp down expectations. On a conference call yesterday, intended to call attention to “Rick Santorum’s long history of pork barrel spending,” former governor Tim Pawlenty noted that he got beat in that state’s precinct caucuses before coming back to take the GOP gubernatorial nomination. In contrast, the Santorum campaign is showing cautious optimism. Chief strategist John Brabender said the former Pennsylvania senator was “very competitive” in Minnesota and “making a late run in Colorado.” He felt that the polls showing his candidate being competitive were validated by “Romney sen[ding] his entire attack machine” against Santorum. While it remains a tough road for Santorum to pull out a win in Colorado, former congressman Tom Tancredo, a Santorum supporter, feels confident that he will at least finish second. He said Santorum “was coming up,” in contrast to Gingrich, whose campaign was “imploding” and who was starting to sound “as paranoid as Nixon.”

In Minnesota, outside observers were starting to feel confident that Santorum could pull it off. Former Democratic congressman Tim Penny, now a member of the Independence Party, thought Santorum was the most likely to pull it out as he “really touches the evangelical/conservative base better than any of the contenders.” However, he did caution that the caucuses are “nonbinding. It’ll give somebody a little bit of bragging rights.”

In addition, the Ron Paul campaign is trying to use the caucuses, particularly Minnesota, to vacuum up additional delegates. Paul has been campaigning heavily in the North Star State, and is hoping to take advantage of its quirky libertarian streak. After all, compared to Jesse Ventura, Paul appears to be a relatively mainstream candidate. The Paul campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but a strong finish in Minnesota for them will be important to get past their disappointing third-place showing in Nevada on Saturday.

While delegates are awarded at the end of the process in Minnesota and Colorado, Missouri is simply a glorified straw poll. The state had moved its primary up to gain extra influence in the nominating process. But, once the Republican National Committee announced sanctions for states that held unsanctioned early contests, it tried to move them back. However, the state legislature was not able to pass clean legislation to accomplish this (one attempt was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon because of other provisions in the bill). The result is that Missouri won’t award its delegates until March, in caucuses, and that its primary simply survives as a vestigial event.

The situation takes on new importance, however, because Newt Gingrich did not bother to qualify for the ballot. This gives the Santorum campaign what it has been hoping for since Iowa, a one-on-one matchup against Mitt Romney. It will serve as one of the key events in Santorum’s plan for February, which is, as Brabender describes, to use the month to “show that we’re the most viable against Romney and most viable against Obama.”

Today is Santorum’s chance to claw his way back into the picture as Mitt Romney’s main rival. Gingrich is still licking his wounds from his collapse in Florida and his snubbing by Donald Trump. Gingrich has favorable states coming up on Super Tuesday, and will not lack for free press in the meantime, with his penchant for election-night press conferences and proposals for moon colonies. But a strong performance by Santorum will change the dynamic of the race. Particularly as there is a three-week hiatus coming without any nominating contests in the United States (there are caucuses, though, in the Northern Mariana Islands on Feb. 25).

There are no delegates at stake tonight, but this is Santorum’s opportunity to muscle into the picture. He may not succeed, but if he has any chance of becoming the GOP nominee, he must do well tonight. For him right now, it is about staying relevant as much as it is about winning delegates.