Christian conservative Rick Santorum’s unexpected trio of state wins has reignited his White House bid and raised new question marks over Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney.
Santorum, written off only a few weeks ago, won caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and a primary in Missouri on Tuesday — a clean sweep that represented another stunning turnaround in the topsy-turvy Republican presidential race.
The established wisdom was that Santorum was surging in the Midwest and could take Minnesota and Missouri thanks to support from evangelical Christians, but no one expected him to win out west in the Rocky Mountains.
It was a bitter blow for Romney, who romped home in Colorado during his 2008 bid, scooping more than 60 percent of the vote.
“The Romney bandwagon just went in the ditch,” CNN analyst David Gergen said, as pundits scratched their heads and struggled to explain the loss.
The latest contests could reposition the Republican battle to be the nominee to take on US President Barack Obama ahead of “Super Tuesday” on March 6, when 10 states vote at once and almost a fifth of all delegates are decided.
A clutch of seven contests this month, including the three held on Tuesday, will not alter the fact that Romney goes into that day the frontrunner, with a larger nationwide organization and a heavier war chest than any of his rivals.
However, Santorum’s triumph puts added pressure on the favorite, threatening to unite a party base that still doubts Romney’s conservative bona fides.
The surge by Santorum, a former US senator, arguably places him back out in front of former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has slumped in recent weeks, making a mockery of his claim to be the obvious “anti-Mitt.”
Santorum was the big winner in Missouri’s primary, with 55 percent of the vote, more than double Romney’s 25 percent. In Minnesota, Santorum led with 45 percent and Romney was a distant third at 17 percent.
The biggest shock of the night was in Colorado, where Santorum scooped 40 percent of the vote, edging out Romney’s 35 percent, according to official party results.
“Wow, what a night for Santorum and a disaster for Mitt,” said Charles Franklin, cofounder of pollster.com and a professor at Marquette University Law School.