Santorum gets boost with wins in Missouri and Minnesota

Rick Santorum won Minnesota and Missouri's nominating contests Tuesday night, giving him badly needed momentum heading into a three-week lull in voting.

While votes are still rolling in, Santorum held wide leads in both states over Mitt Romney, who was in third place behind Ron Paul in Minnesota. Colorado’s caucus results are just starting to trickle in.

Speaking to supporters in Missouri, Santorum targeted President Obama. "I don't stand here to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama," he said to cheers and screams from the crowd.

He also took a subtle shot at Romney, saying "I care about the very rich and the very poor. I care about 100 percent of America" in reference to Romney's comment last week he doesn't care about the "very poor."

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He ended his speech on a light note, reminding Missouri voters of next month's contest where the delegates will be decided: "Go out and pledge, no, not your lives. Maybe your fortune -- ricksantorum is the website -- but your honor."

Santorum led Romney in Missouri with 55 percent of the vote to Romney’s 25 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting.

In Minnesota, Santorum led with 45 percent with 81 percent of precincts reporting. Paul was in second with 27 percent and Romney took third with 17 percent. The former Massachusetts governor won the state in 2008.

Santorum has won all three Midwestern states that have voted and will likely use those victories to sell himself as a more viable conservative alternative than Newt Gingrich.

“Santorum is now closer to assuming the anti-Romney mantle,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who is unaffiliated in the race. “This is a good start but the next two weeks are going to be extremely critical for him.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who has endorsed Romney, downplayed Santorum's win in his state.

"I congratulate my friend Rick Santorum on his win tonight, but the fact remains that this is a non-binding primary, meaning Missouri's delegates are still very much up for grabs. Mitt Romney has the organization and the resources to go the distance in this election, and I believe he'll ultimately win our party's nomination," Blunt said in a statement Tuesday night.

Besides Maine’s weeklong caucuses, which will wrap up on Sunday, there are no more votes until Feb. 28, when Arizona and Michigan vote. Romney did well in both states four years ago, winning Michigan, where his father was governor, and finishing in second place behind home-state Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in Arizona. There is also another debate on the horizon -- Arizona will host it on Feb. 22.

Santorum’s wins also indicate that Romney may have a problem appealing to primary voters in the Midwest, heightening the importance of Ohio’s primary vote on Super Tuesday. Romney has now lost all three states -- Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri -- although he did little to try and win in the Missouri.

Several Midwest states -- such as Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania -- will be critical swing states in the general election.

While Missouri was purely a “beauty contest” with no delegates attached and Minnesota’s delegates are not bound to back one candidate, the elections help Santorum claim momentum.

Romney won Minnesota’s caucuses by a strong margin four years ago after running to McCain’s right. But his campaign has sought all week to downplay the states’ results.

Romney canceled a planned appearance in the state on Monday, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), a top Romney surrogate, participated in two conference calls this week where he predicted the final would be close and said the historically low turnout in the state meant its results were less relevant.

"It's important, but it's a smaller turnout than a primary system and it's difficult to predict," Pawlenty said last week. "Given the relatively modest turnout, small fluctuations of the turnout can reflect the result one way or the other.”

On Monday, Pawlenty predicted Santorum would do well because the very conservative caucus-goers “tend to gravitate towards the perceived most conservative candidate.”

Romney’s campaign also attacked Santorum for the first time since right after Iowa, criticizing him for his support of earmarks, while Santorum slammed Romney for his positions on health care.

Missouri’s primary votes are irrelevant when it comes to the delegate count: Because of complications in the state legislature Missouri will vote again in one month, this time in a binding delegate caucus.

Santorum was also boosted by Gingrich’s failure to qualify for the ballot in Missouri, allowing him to coalesce voters who did not want to back Romney in the primary.

This story was last updated at 11:07 p.m.