After Mitt Romney scored impressive wins in Florida and Nevada last week, it looked as though the race for the Republican presidential nomination had finally come into focus. The former Massachusetts governor was not only the clear frontrunner, but he was the presumptive nominee. Talk of Romney's "inevitability" was ubiquitous.
And then last night happened.
Rick Santorum, a non-factor in the race since his narrow win in Iowa a month ago, pulled off an unexpected hat trick yesterday, picking up impressive wins in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri. The caveats certainly matter -- as Tricia noted earlier, these contests were not important when it came to awarding delegates -- but that doesn't mean the results should be dismissed out of hand.
As Nate Silver explained mid-day yesterday, long before we'd seen any results, these three races "will provide an important test of how robust Mitt Romney's coalition is on less favorable terrain ... and they could potentially revitalize the campaign of one of Mr. Romney's opponents, Rick Santorum."
When the dust cleared last night, Romney had failed this "important test" and Santorum could credibly claim that he, not Newt Gingrich, is the GOP frontrunner's principal rival going forward.
In Minnesota, Santorum won with an impressive 44.8% of the vote, while Romney, despite the enthusiastic support of Minnesotans like Tim Pawlenty and Norm Coleman, finished third. Remember, four years ago, Romney cruised to a 19-point win in Minnesota.
In Colorado, Santorum's margin was closer, beating Romney 40.2% to 34.9%, but this was a state Romney was supposed to win with relative ease. In 2008, the former governor crushed the competition in Colorado, winning with 42,218 votes, which was over 60% of the total. Yesterday, Romney's support was cut roughly in half.
And in Missouri, Santorum beat Romney by a whopping 30 points, despite the fact that Gingrich wasn't even on the ballot.
The Romney camp will very likely spin the results as a momentary setback, little more than a speed bump on the road to Tampa. That may even prove to be true. But given Santorum's clean sweep yesterday, Romney will now be forced to confront something he'd desperately hoped to avoid: doubt.
Romney's been able to convince party officials and activists to overlook his weaknesses as a candidate -- his flip-flops, his layoff-driven riches, his out-of-touch gaffes -- because he was their inevitable nominee. But after Santorum's hat trick, Republicans are likely to pause and consider just how strong a candidate Romney really is. Those aren't the kind of questions the former governor wanted to hear at this stage in the process, and he may not like the answers.
The road to the GOP nomination just got a little longer.