Romney spin can't dent Santorum sweep

Mitt Romney’s campaign furiously spun the results from Tuesday night before they even started to come in, but their efforts failed to erase the perception the GOP front-runner suffered a strong setback after Rick Santorum rolled to victory in three states.

The former Massachusetts governor’s team initially argued that the delegates in Tuesday’s GOP contests weren’t binding and that Missouri’s primary was “purely a beauty contest.”

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But Romney was dismissive of the "beauty contest," because he knew his face wasn’t going to be in the mirror. After all, Iowa’s celebrated caucuses didn’t award delegates to candidates in January, and Romney made much of his strong showing there. 

But no amount of spin could cover up the indisputably stinging defeat to Santorum in Colorado — a state that polls had Romney winning easily just days ago. Even worse, he had actually spent time and money there and won resoundingly in 2008.

Tuesday night's GOP contests might not have hurt Romney electorally — his campaign holds a strong money edge over his rivals and polling shows him ahead in the next round of states — but they again raised questions about whether he can secure enough of the party’s conservative base to win the nomination. 

Rick Santorum, a former senator who was crushed in his last election, had little money and was mired all cycle in the single digits, swept Romney in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, and once again proved how weak the former Massachusetts governor is. 

This wasn’t similar to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) losing one-off GOP primary contests to Mike Huckabee or even Romney. In this cycle, Romney is a front-runner who has been losing to political has-beens fairly routinely.

The good news for Romney is that the next two key contests take him to friendlier territory. Michigan is a pseudo home-state where his father once served as governor and where Romney currently holds a double-digit lead, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls. And he holds an even bigger 28 percent lead in the RCP average of Arizona. 

Those states and their combined 59 delegates matter, mathematically, but, ironically, they might not matter as much cosmetically. That’s because their results are already being treated as a fait accompli, and consequently, there won’t be much coverage of or attention lavished on them. The hounds follow a hunt, and in those states, the prizes are as good as had.

Instead, candidates will scramble to the Super Tuesday contests just a few days later, where territory is much friendlier to those candidates looking to capitalize on anti-Romney GOP voters. 

Four out of 11 Super Tuesday states will be in Gingrich’s native South, while Ohio promises to be the biggest prize by far. A whopping 66 delegates will be awarded (New Hampshire, by comparison, only gave 12), and Gingrich has already indicated he’ll camp out there for much of this month (to prove his point, the former House Speaker spent Tuesday night there).

To underscore Ohio’s looming importance, the pro-Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future is already buying up ad space in the state. Gingrich’s suddenly reeling campaign doesn’t have the money to compete in Ohio, a state with expensive media markets, but he’ll try to make up for it by spending more time there. 

Meanwhile, Santorum has big stakes in the state, too. He’s from neighboring Pennsylvania and has based much of his candidacy on the argument that he can paint the Midwest red again. Losing in Ohio would severely damage his case.

But Santorum has something that can’t be bought: momentum. In the never-ending competition to be the lone Romney alternative, he can present the freshest, strongest evidence that he’s the guy. 

On Tuesday night, his adviser, John Brabender, told CNBC’s John Harwood that Missouri proved that “in a clean one-one-one against Romney, we beat him.” Former Bush administration official, Ari Fleischer, tweeted that, delegates or not, “money will come in for Santorum tomorrow.”

And Santorum himself seemed ready to take that fight to Romney in his victory speech when he claimed to care for both the “very rich and the very poor” — a jab at Romney’s famous flub last week.

Now he has to decide where to face Romney in the many options before him. He might be tempted to make a stand in the next primaries, Michigan and Arizona, but Romney’s lead is large, and Santorum has already been burned by a vainglorious move this cycle.

After winning Iowa, he chose to face Romney in New Hampshire, instead of moving immediately toward the more friendly South Carolina primary. The result? Santorum was crushed in both states and left for dead. 

Now he faces a similar choice — go to Michigan and Arizona and pull a shocking upset, or focus on the Southern slate of Super Tuesday states that offer a better ideological fit.

For Gingrich, the situation is dire, being reduced to an afterthought in Tuesday night’s results, with Santorum now able to claim four times the number of state wins. 

There’s just one breakout moment possible for Gingrich before voting starts again later this month — a national debate scheduled for Feb. 22. He’s had great success in those tussles before, but one debate might not be enough to overcome his sagging fortunes.