With Rick Santorum’s three victories yesterday in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, the whole nature of the Republican race has changed. And changed in a profound way.
That air of inevitability that Mitt Romney was once again exuding following his decisive 15 point win in Florida has vanished overnight.
Once again, the GOP race is wide open. No longer is this a one-man race, nor is it even a two-man race.
The fact that Romney was unable to win any of the three states – two of which he won by large margins in 2008 — losing Minnesota and Missouri by wide margins suggests very clearly that this could well be a long campaign– one that could well drag on to the Convention.
Recent polling conducted by both Rasmussen and Reuters surveys show Romney’s lead slipping away –having been cut in half in the past few days.
And looking back at the entire Primary Season to date, Governor Romney has had trouble winning a majority of the vote anywhere – doing so just once in Nevada.
Moreover, if we compare the two candidates’ performance on a state-by-state wins, Santorum has actually won more contests than Governor Romney.
To be sure, no delegates were at stake in any of the contests in Colorado or Minnesota, and the Missouri primary also did not give Santorum any additional support in the formal nominating process.
Still, there are a number of implications going forward.
First, Governor Romney can’t do what he did immediately following his win in Florida — which is to turn his attention almost exclusively to President Obama.
He must continue to focus on his Republican opponents, and use the great advantage he has enjoyed– substantial financial resources– to attack them.
However, while a strategy works, as we saw in Florida, it could well backfire – and drive up Governor Romney’s negatives, not only with Republicans, but with key critical swing voters to win Independents.
Second, Governor Romney has to stay on the right.
The vast majority of the support Santorum got was from social and economic conservatives on Tuesday, and Governor Romney has to move right to hold that support.
To be sure, Governor Romney has a resource and organizational advantage going forward, and he should do well in Arizona and Michigan on February 28th.
But he will need to win at least close to half of the states that hold primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday to retain his frontrunner standing.
Super Tuesday is also the last stand for Newt Gingrich. While the most recent Rasmussen polling shows Gingrich in second place, the former Speaker will have to do well throughout the South to remain viable at the very least.
So the Republican contest is, once again, wide open.
Romney’s vulnerability on the right has become clear. Santorum’s strength with social conservatives reinforced.
And the big winner, once again, is President Obama.