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Santorum's day in the sun?

<p>They lack the high-profile drama of January&#039;s contests, but Republicans in three states will weigh in today as part of the GOP&#039;s presidential
Santorum's day in the sun?
Santorum's day in the sun?

They lack the high-profile drama of January's contests, but Republicans in three states will weigh in today as part of the GOP's presidential nominating process. Minnesota and Colorado will hold their caucuses today, and Missouri will host a non-binding primary (a separate caucus for choosing delegates will be held next month).

So, do today's contests matter? They're clearly not generating the same kind of attention as the other recent races -- Tricia mentioned earlier that these three aren't exactly Super Tuesday -- but they still have the potential to influence the larger race. Today, for example, will tell us a great deal about whether Rick Santorum sticks around.

The former Pennsylvania senator managed to eke out a narrow win in Iowa a month ago, but has made very little noise since. That may soon change -- new results from Public Policy Polling shows Santorum leading the pack in Minnesota and Missouri, and a competitive second in Colorado.

Indeed, we can say with confidence that Santorum is likely to fare well today, if for no other reason than Mitt Romney's campaign saw fit to start attacking him again yesterday.

[O]n Monday, Mr. Romney's campaign began unloading criticism on Mr. Santorum, a rival who had largely escaped being the target of Mr. Romney's attack machine."Rick Santorum is a nice guy, but he is simply not ready to be president," wrote Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota and a top surrogate for Mr. Romney, in a statement Monday morning. [...]That was followed by two e-mails from Mr. Romney's campaign: one titled "Rick Santorum: Proud Defender of Earmarks and Pork-Barrel Spending," and the other titled "A Summary of Santorum's False Attacks on Massachusetts Health Care."

There's never any mystery as to what the Romney campaign's internal polling says -- whomever they perceive as a threat at the time is the one facing Romney's attack operation. Since Santorum has gone from afterthought to target in recent days, it's clear the former senator is positioned to have a good day.

To a certain extent, he'll have to. Given the larger context, Santorum needs a reason to keep his campaign going, and a win or two today will provide that rationale. In fact, Santorum is likely to top Newt Gingrich in all three of today's contests (Gingrich isn't even on the ballot in Missouri).

In turn, the Republicans' nominating fight will continue in ways that Romney probably won't like.

Jonathan Bernstein had a persuasive take yesterday on the state of play.

The wrinkle tomorrow is that it's probably Rick Santorum's last stand, and Santorum ... is ultimately a bigger headache for Romney than Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul. So that means there is something at stake tomorrow after all: if Romney can sweep the three contests, it's hard to see Santorum continuing in the race, and that would be a big step towards the general election for Romney.On the other hand, should Santorum have a good day, he'll stay in through Super Tuesday and it's even plausible that Romney will be forced to stay engaged well past the first week of March. And for Mitt, that could mean many more weeks of pandering to Republican primary voters.

Given the toll the process is taking on Romney's favorability ratings, a longer nominating fight isn't exactly the former governor's first choice.

Nate Silver was thinking along similar lines, highlighting Romney's problems in the Midwest, and making the case that Santorum is arguably "a more dangerous opponent for Mr. Romney than Mr. Gingrich at this point. He has run a more disciplined campaign than the former House speaker, has less personal baggage and is less disliked by party leaders."