(WASHINGTON) — Voters in three states made their picks for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, as Mitt Romney tried to win enough votes to deny his rivals any momentum going into the first lull of the primary season.
The results of the caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and the primary in Missouri are expected to be known Tuesday night, and while the four candidates are competing for delegates — 76 between the two caucuses — the real prize is the evolving media narrative that accompanies a surprise victory, or a better-than-expected finish.
Tuesday is the first day this year when there are contests in more than one state.
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul skipped last week’s Florida primary to campaign elsewhere, and that strategy could pay off. Santorum’s efforts in Minnesota and Missouri have caught the attention of the Romney campaign, which put Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty on a conference call to talk trash about the ex-senator from Pennsylvania.
Romney, once again the undisputed front-runner after wins in Florida and in Nevada, won the 2008 caucuses in Colorado and in Minnesota handily. But a win in just one of those states Tuesday night might not be enough to keep him on cruise control if he falters in the other two. His campaign tried to lower expectations by arguing that no candidate can win them all.
“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,” Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, wrote in a memo for reporters.
Not helping Romney’s situation is Newt Gingrich, who abandoned hope in all three states and has moved on to Ohio. His absence — he’s not even listed on the ballot in Missouri — potentially frees up conservative voters to side with Santorum, who has been itching for a good headline since his resurgent victory in Iowa, the first state to vote in the GOP primary.
“Santorum probably resonates well with many Republicans here,” said John Petrocik, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri. “This is a culturally conservative place. Conservative religious groups, they’re certainly a factor in Missouri, so I could imagine him doing fairly well.”
The previous voting contests were all scheduled in cluster, but after Tuesday’s races there is a lull, which will allow the story of the outcomes in these three states to linger for weeks before another primary. Maine has a week of caucuses that ends Feb. 11, but after that the next voting isn’t until Feb. 28, in Arizona and in Michigan.
It’s also unlikely that any of the candidates will drop out of the race after Tuesday’s votes. Gingrich, who dethroned Romney as the front-runner after a South Carolina win, has vowed to contest every state; Santorum is expected to get at least enough votes to prove that he can stay competitive; and Paul hasn’t shown signs that he’d quit despite not yet winning a single primary or caucus.
All of which is unpleasant news for Romney, who has been forced to respond to venomous attacks from his rivals instead of focusing his attention on President Obama. Four years ago, Romney ended his 2008 bid for the GOP nomination shortly after losing to John McCain on “Super Tuesday,” which was Feb. 5 that year. This time around, “Super Tuesday” isn’t until March 6.
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