Trio of polls bode well for Santorum in Tuesday contests

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Santorum should also have a chance for a surprise win in Minnesota, where PPP's poll finds his 33 percent leading Romney's 24, Gingrich's 22 and Ron Paul's 20 percent. Although the Paul campaign is expected to outperform its poll standing in the caucus states — and more than a third of voters remain undecided — Santorum's popularity edge should play to his benefit.

Romney's firewall Tuesday should be the Colorado election, where he holds a 10-point, 37 percent to 27 percent, lead over Santorum, according to PPP. Still, Santorum leads Gingrich by six percentage points and Paul by 14 percent, providing the opportunity for a solid second-place finish.

Although none of Tuesday's contests will award all-important convention delegates, a big night for Santorum could propel him back into relevancy in a GOP contest where he has had a tough time gaining traction since his surprise win in Iowa. A strong showing could elevate him as the consensus choice of conservatives disenchanted with presumptive front-runner Romney, and help steer important fundraising dollars his way, rather than toward Gingrich. A pair of losses could also help slow the momentum of Romney, whose campaign has taken on an air of inevitability after dominating wins in Florida and Nevada.

The polling firm pointed to Santorum's personal popularity — untarnished by the nasty back-and-forth that Gingrich and Romney have engaged in over past months — as the primary reason for his surge in the polls. Santorum's favorability numbers are over 70 percent among Republican voters in each of the three states, while Romney's and Gingrich's average favorability numbers are in the 40s.

Santorum is making inroads especially among voters who so far have been siding with Gingrich in early voting states.

"There are three groups Santorum's winning in all three of these states: Tea Partiers, evangelicals and those describing themselves as 'very conservative,' " PPP said in a release. "Those were groups that had previously been in Gingrich's column, but it appears right-leaning Republican voters are shifting toward Santorum as their primary alternative to Romney. If Santorum does pick up two wins and a second-place finish tomorrow, that trend is likely to be accelerated."

The Romney campaign seems to recognize the Santorum threat, setting up a conference call with reporters Monday to criticize Santorum's support for earmarks and increasing the debt-celling and issuing a press release arguing Santorum's attacks on Romney's healthcare plan were inaccurate.