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Santorum Three-State Republican Sweep Slows Romney’s Drive

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Feb. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Rick Santorum shook up the race for the Republican presidential nomination by sweeping three contests yesterday, casting doubt on front-runner Mitt Romney’s hold over the party’s core voters.

Santorum beat Romney by 30 percentage points in Missouri’s non-binding primary, where former U.S. Speaker Newt Gingrich wasn’t on the ballot. He topped his closest rival in Minnesota’s caucuses, U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, by 18 points, with Romney placing third. Santorum topped Romney in Colorado by 5 points.

The results suggest a lingering weakness for Romney, especially among the most conservative Republicans who are focused on issues such as banning abortion. At the same time, Santorum’s new strength may aid Romney in a prolonged fight for the nomination. A revitalized Santorum campaign may mean that he and Gingrich will continue to split the anti-Romney vote, leaving neither with a commanding count of delegates.

While no delegates were awarded yesterday, Santorum, 53, now has four victories in the nomination race and Romney has three. Santorum last night told supporters in St. Charles, Missouri, that he was the candidate best suited to take on President Barack Obama in November’s general election.

‘Same Positions’

“Mitt Romney has the same positions as Barack Obama,” the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania said. “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.”

“We definitely are the campaign right now with the momentum,” Santorum said today on CNN. “We’re doing very, very well raising money,” with about $250,000 raised online last night, he said.

He campaigned in Texas today.

Romney, 64, told supporters in Denver last night that he was focused on the contests to come.

“This was a good night for Rick Santorum,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “We’ll keep on campaigning down the road, but I expect to become our nominee, with your help.”

Santorum won 55 percent of the vote in Missouri’s non-binding primary with all precincts reporting, according to the Associated Press. Romney had 25 percent and Paul had 12 percent.

Minnesota Results

In Minnesota’s caucuses, Santorum got 45 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting in the AP tally. Paul had 27 percent, followed by Romney with 17 percent and Gingrich with 11 percent.

Paul, 76, told supporters in Golden Valley, Minnesota, last night that his second-place finish should earn him a cache of delegates.

“It’s the cause of liberty that we must restore, and we are well on our way, and we’re going to keep this momentum,” he said.

In Colorado, Santorum had 40 percent of the vote, with all precincts reporting in the AP tally. Romney had 35 percent, followed by Gingrich with 13 percent and Paul with 12 percent.

The Minnesota and Colorado caucuses represent the first step toward awarding convention delegates, though yesterday’s results are non-binding on that process. Missouri’s primary is a symbolic, so-called beauty contest; the state’s delegates will be allocated at caucuses later this year.

Turnout Falls

Turnout in all three states dropped from 2008. About 250,000 voters went to the polls in Missouri, less than half than voted last time. Colorado had 66,027 people participate in caucuses, down from 70,229 in 2008. And in Minnesota, with almost all precincts reporting, turnout was down to 48,695 from almost 63,000 four years ago.

Colorado’s turnout was less than a tenth of registered Republicans; Minnesota and Missouri don’t require party affiliations to register.

The outcomes slow Romney’s momentum and offer openings to rivals. Romney had reclaimed the mantle of front-runner after easily winning the two previous contests, Florida’s Jan. 31 primary and Nevada’s Feb. 4 caucuses.

Romney also won the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary and Santorum got a victory in the Jan. 3 lead-off Iowa caucuses.

Romney won 60 percent of the vote in Colorado’s 2008 caucuses in his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination, and 41 percent of the vote in winning that year’s Minnesota caucuses.

Political Dynamics

His aides said that this year in Minnesota the political dynamics worked against him. Four years ago, Romney ran as the fiscal and social conservative alternative to Arizona Senator John McCain, who won the party’s nomination. Today, he is viewed as the establishment pick, after gaining endorsements from party leaders and elected officials.

The Romney team had lowered expectations in Minnesota, a state that has seen an increase in power for social and fiscal conservatives who nominated a Tea Party-backed gubernatorial candidate in 2010. Santorum, a Catholic with an anti-abortion record, spent the bulk of his time over the past week in the state.

Scheduling Romney to be in Denver last night, though, was a sign of the campaign’s expectations in Colorado.

Santorum’s victory in Missouri, while meaningless in the delegate count, may better illustrate the challenge Romney has in winning conservative voters and the benefit he gains from Santorum and Gingrich, who was boosted by a win in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary, each remaining in the race.

Clear Path

With Gingrich, 68, not on the ballot in Missouri, Santorum had a clear path to claim the conservative bloc of votes.

“Yesterday, we saw something that the Santorum and Gingrich camps have known for a long time: Mitt Romney is falling,” said R.C. Hammond, Gingrich’s campaign spokesman.

Gingrich didn’t mention yesterday’s results or Santorum and Romney by name during a speech this morning at Jergens Inc., a closely held company in Cleveland that manufactures products such as specialty fasteners. Gingrich also spent yesterday in Ohio, which has begun early voting ahead of its March 6 primary.

Romney also turned his focus to one of the 11 “Super Tuesday” states that will hold primaries or caucuses on March 6, traveling to Gingrich’s home state of Georgia for an event in Atlanta.

No Advantage

“I don’t think Newt has the home-court advantage here at all, I don’t think anybody does,” said Elizabeth Garcia, 35, a teacher, homemaker and poet, as she stood in line waiting for Romney’s arrival at Bottega Stone, an importer of the stone used in upscale countertops. “Newt made a lot of enemies here over the years.”

Homemaker Stacy Ro, 31, said she thought Gingrich did have a small advantage, and that it was a smart move for Romney to campaign early in the state.

Gingrich plans to campaign for two days in Georgia next week.

Later this week, Romney and his rivals are to address activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. The reception Romney receives will be closely watched, especially following yesterday’s results.

Last night represented the second time Santorum has staged a surprise surge in the Republican race.

He spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate and began to make headway with voters only in the final days before the caucuses. Romney was initially declared the winner in that contest, edging Santorum by eight votes. More than two weeks later, the Iowa Republican Party said the final returns showed Santorum victorious, beating Romney by 34 votes.

Romney has more campaign cash than his remaining three opponents, and that gives him an advantage in organizing operations in primaries on Feb. 28 in Arizona and Michigan and the contests that follow on March 6.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net Catherine Dodge in Washington at cdodge1@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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