Santorum wins Republican contests in Missouri, Minnesota

Reuters

Posted at Feb 08 2012 11:27 AM | Updated as of Feb 09 2012 12:07 AM

WASHINGTON (UPDATE) - Former U.S. senator Rick Santorum rejuvenated his presidential hopes on Tuesday with overwhelming victories over front-runner Mitt Romney in Republican nominating contests in Missouri and Minnesota.

Santorum, who until Tuesday had won only one of the first five Republican contests, crushed his rivals in a non-binding primary in Missouri and in the Minnesota caucuses. His previous victory had been by a slim margin over Romney in Iowa.

Results were still being tallied in the caucuses in Colorado, the third state to vote on Tuesday in the state-by-state battle for the Republican nomination to face President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6 election.

On the first day of multiple nominating contests in the 2012 primary season, networks projected Santorum as the winner in Missouri and Minnesota. In Missouri, with 86 percent of the vote counted, Santorum had 56 percent to Romney's 25 percent, according to the secretary of state's website.

With 56 percent of the vote counted in Minnesota, the secretary of state's website said Santorum had 45 percent of the vote, U.S. congressman Ron Paul was in second with 27 percent and Romney a distant third with 17 percent. It marked the first time so far in the 2012 Republican race that Romney did not come in first or second in a state contest.

The victory gives new hope to Santorum, a staunch social and religious conservative, and new momentum in his battle with former U.S. House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich to be viewed as the top conservative alternative to the more moderate Romney.

"Wow. Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota," Santorum told supporters in St. Charles, Missouri after results came in from those two states.

"I don't stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama," he added to cheers from the crowd.

Gingrich was not on the ballot in Missouri, allowing Santorum the chance to consolidate conservative voters in the state and compete directly with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Paul, known for his libertarian views.

Santorum spent the last two days campaigning in Missouri while Romney focused on Colorado.

The Missouri primary is considered a "beauty contest" because the candidates do not win delegates who will take part in the August Republican convention where the party's presidential nominee will officially be chosen. Missouri Republicans will select convention delegates in caucuses on March 17 in the state's two-step process.

But the primary still was considered a noteworthy test of strength among the candidates in a big Midwestern state.

In caucuses, voters gather in public places, listen to speeches from representatives of the various candidates and cast ballots for their choice.

Romney had won in New Hampshire, Florida and in the most recent contest in Nevada to seize control of the volatile Republican race.

SOCIAL ISSUES

Santorum has made his strong positions on social issues a centerpiece of his bid and is hoping his staunch opposition to gay marriage and abortion will help win over conservatives wary of Romney because of moderate positions he took while running for office in liberal Massachusetts.

Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts who also previously headed the private equity firm Bain Capital, is the best funded and best organized of the Republican candidates vying for a shot at Obama in the general election.

But many Republican voters, particularly the most conservative ones, have failed to embrace him. Some Christian conservatives are wary of Romney because of his Mormon religion.

Santorum's campaign is far behind Romney in fund-raising and in support by the Republican establishment, but he has managed to win followers - particularly in conservative Midwest states - with his message on social issues.

The next major Republican nominating contests are the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Feb. 28, while Maine wraps up its caucuses this Saturday.

Gingrich hopes his campaign can last until "Super Tuesday" contests in 10 states on March 6 and several later contests in March, when votes will be taken in southern states where he expects to do well.

Gingrich spent Tuesday campaigning in Ohio, one of the "Super Tuesday" states. Early voting begins in Ohio on Tuesday.

"I think the big story coming out tonight is going to be that it's very hard for the elite media to portray Governor Romney as the inevitable nominee after tonight's over," Gingrich said on CNN.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday that has Romney ahead in the race nationally with 29 percent showed Santorum's support has gained by 5 percentage points in the last month, to 18 percent.

That put him in a virtual tie with Gingrich, at 19 percent, and Paul, who was at 21 percent.