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Santorum may be positioned to shake up presidential race

By David Lightman, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum faced an important opportunity Tuesday to become the chief conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, as he was poised for possibly strong showings in Republican presidential contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, was expected to remain the front-runner for the GOP nomination whatever happened Tuesday, thanks to his huge advantages in campaign cash and organization and his impressive earlier wins in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada.

But late polls showed Santorum surging, although polls are notoriously weak at forecasting caucus results, because caucus turnout tends to be low and to require unusually motivated voters who are willing to attend meetings for hours. Still, a solid Santorum vote would provide fresh evidence that “Romney’s is a troubled candidacy,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “The outcome of the race is far from certain.”

A strong showing by Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, would make it clear that Romney isn’t yet his party’s consensus nominee. It could signal that the GOP nomination campaign may remain a bitter struggle for months, possibly leading to a divided August convention and a weakened candidate against President Barack Obama in the fall.

Each state voting Tuesday offered its own intrigue. Because Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, wasn’t on the Missouri primary ballot, the conservative vote there was less likely to fracture than in earlier contests, making a Romney triumph more difficult.

In Minnesota, Romney had the backing of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, but a vocal conservative Christian community appeared to be rallying behind Santorum.

And in Colorado, Romney stepped up his campaigning in recent days, figuring that was his best shot to win.

No delegates were to be chosen Tuesday. Caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota began a process that will lead to delegate selection there in April and May. Missouri’s primary is a “beauty contest” only; its 52 delegates will be chosen in state and local conventions later this spring. Tuesday’s contests were about influencing public opinion and building momentum.

Turnout in the three states was expected to be low; only about 60,000 voters turned out for Minnesota’s 2008 GOP caucuses, in a state that now has about 3 million registered voters. About half the voters in Missouri and Minnesota were expected to be Republicans who consider themselves conservative Christians.

Romney hoped to sustain the momentum he’d gained with big wins in Florida and Nevada over the past week. But many conservatives remain uncomfortable with him. A Pew Research Center survey in late January found that 52 percent of Republicans rated the GOP presidential candidate field fair or poor.

Should conservatives rally around Santorum — or take fresh looks at Gingrich or Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul — no candidate is likely to amass quickly the 1,144 delegates needed for the GOP nomination.

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