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Santorum will find different landscape when he returns to Missouri for caucuses


This news story was published on February 9, 2012.
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By Jake Wagman and Bill Lambrecht, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — Rick Santorum scored his best night of the primary season on Tuesday, securing victories in three states, including a symbolic win in Missouri.

But while the former Pennsylvania senator carried the Show-Me State by a wide margin — he won every county and had more votes than all of the other GOP contenders combined — he’ll find a much different landscape when he returns to Missouri for next month’s caucuses, which, unlike Tuesday’s vote, will actually count toward awarding convention delegates.

Santorum ran virtually uncontested on Tuesday. He was the only candidate to do any campaigning in the run-up to the vote. GOP front-runner Mitt Romney avoided the state altogether, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wasn’t even on the ballot.

And turnout was paltry, with more than nine out of 10 voters staying home.

Santorum’s success on Tuesday may indeed give him a foundation of support and even mark him as the favorite to win the state’s March 17 caucuses. But the unpredictability of the process and the tendency for momentum to be fleeting in this year’s nominating contest means when it comes to looking ahead, little is certain.

The caucuses could actually provide a boost for a candidate such as Ron Paul, a skilled organizer who has cultivated an enthusiastic base of support. It’s hard to predict what role Gingrich, whose fortunes continue to roller-coaster, will play in the Missouri results. Of course, if the well-funded Romney decides to make Missouri a priority, he could quickly change the equation.

“The caucuses are very much more grassroots, organized, structured-type politics,” said State Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, a Santorum supporter. “There is a very high possibility that those candidates that are very organized on a grassroots level will have the best showing.”

Republicans can expect relatively small numbers of voters to take part in caucuses — tens of thousands, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands that cast a ballot in even a lightly patronized primary election. The process will play out on a Saturday.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has at least one advantage: the support of many GOP powerbrokers in Missouri, from U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, who has been tasked with corralling support for Romney on Capitol Hill, to former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, who is advising Romney on the campaign trail.

Talking about Tuesday’s victory for Santorum in Missouri, Talent compared it to a game where “only one team was playing.”

“It wasn’t an indicator of Missouri Republicans because Rick was the only one who campaigned,” Talent said. “He was able to get out his message without anybody challenging it. That won’t be the case with the caucuses.”

Talent said the Romney campaign already is lining up county coordinators and preparing a get-out-the-vote effort, adding that he expects a “strong effort” in Missouri from Romney’s national campaign and a visit to Missouri by the candidate.

Santorum, meanwhile, is trying to build on his momentum. Speaking at a rally Tuesday night in St. Charles, Santorum told supporters that he still needs their help.

“We’re not done yet with you here in Missouri,” Santorum said. “You’ve got a caucus coming up.”

Santorum also sent out a fundraising appeal Wednesday saying that he had “shocked the moderate establishment and pulled off what the media elites said was impossible by winning three huge contests that we were told we couldn’t win.”

While no delegates were awarded in Missouri, media outlets across the country treated the outcome as if a great deal was at stake.

The front page of The Washington Post, for example, featured a four-column photo of Santorum with the headline, “Santorum’s Breakthrough Night” and mentioned Missouri first in an accompanying story about his victories Tuesday night.

Missouri may have given Santorum a push, but Missourians have not yet given him the wherewithal he will need to compete: Santorum reported just $7,000 in donations from Missouri in financial disclosures last week, compared with well over over $1 million in Missouri money donated to Romney’s campaign and hundreds of thousands more to his super PAC.

Whether the path to the nomination ultimately leads through Missouri remains unclear. It will largely depend on what happens on March 6 — “Super Tuesday” — when 10 states weigh in on the Republican candidates for president. If Romney performs especially strong on Super Tuesday, the likelihood of a meaningful Missouri caucus could be greatly diminished.

But if the race grows even tighter, look for the national focus — and the candidates — to zoom in on Missouri again.

A caucus system works much different than a traditional election. In Missouri, voters will meet at county or township level meetings on March 17 to determine their preference for the nominee.

While attendees may go through several rounds of voting, the key to victory is getting the most supporters to the polls. Money never hurts but, as Santorum showed in his narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses, it may be more important to identify a core group of dedicated supporters rather than blanket the state with television ads or direct mail.

When Missouri Republicans last used a caucus to pick their favorite candidate for president in 1996, it was Pat Buchanan’s army of supporters that helped him upset the eventual nominee, Bob Dole.

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