Wow, Rick Santorum Pulls Upset in Colorado Caucus, Mitt Romney Struggles, Ron Paul Only An After Thought

Rick Santorum just made the GOP race a race again.

Marginalized throughout much of this 2012 GOP presidential contest as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich battled it out, Santorum showed on Tuesday that he was very much a contender.

Earlier in the day, the former Pennsylvania Senator had already won both the non-binding Missouri primary with 55% of the vote and the Minnesota caucuses with 45% of the vote. And now, Santorum has just hit the trifecta, winning the Colorado Republican caucus as well.

Santorum notched 38% of the vote, barely edging out Romney, who had 37%. Gingrich (13%) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) (12%) scrapped for last place.

The cherry on the sundae that is this Colorado win in a day of other primary wins shows that Santorum will be a significant challenger to Romney in the next few weeks. The GOP presidential primary circus still looks like it has some excitement left in it.

Santorum campaigned aggressively in Colorado. On Monday in the state, Santorum attacked the new Obama administration rule that will force many religious employers (like Catholic universities and hospitals) to include birth control in the health plans of their workers. Such social conservatism seems to be winning Santorum dividends.

Santorum took an early lead in the polls, but Romney quickly caught back up as polls in the Denver suburbs began reporting. In Denver County, Romney edged out Santorum by over 10%, while in Boulder County, Romney lead by 7%.

Some Colorado voters in the Denver suburbs said that electability and the ability to defeat Barack Obama in November was the biggest factor as they made their decision. This played to Romney's advantage as he hoped to win the state he had won big in the 2008 primaries.

Still, Santorum won a number of rural counties, especially to the east and south of the state. As Super Tuesday approaches on March 6, Santorum's ability to sway rural voters will be critical to maintain his momentum.

In the Midwest and Mountain West, the social conservative Santorum seems to have finally gained the traction he needed in this primary contest. But in some respects Santorum’s big wins in this region of the United States shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Remember that Santorum had in fact won the Iowa caucus (after the ballots were recounted three weeks after the caucus, he edged Romney by 34 votes). Santorum’s brand of conservatism seems to appeal to Middle America.

The Santorum surge truly throws a rod in the spoke of the Romney machine, adding new drama to the GOP Cirque du Soleil circus show.

As Mat Taibbi of Rolling Stone said, “Watching Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and whoever else is running for the GOP nomination this week try to hold on to front-runner status has been great slapstick, like watching a cruel experiment involving baboons, laughing gas, and a forklift.”

Taibbi wrote that story a week ago. Tuesday’s results only prove that this GOP presidential race will be action-packed.

Early on Tuesday, Santorum spun the day as a potential turning point in the Republican presidential primary. “I feel great that Minnesota is going to change the direction of this race tonight,” Santorum said.

This was indeed be the big night Santorum was hoping for.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore