Santorum poised to give Romney a black eye in trio of state nominating contests

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum may be nudging Newt Gingrich out of the way as the favoured candidate of far-right conservatives as he makes big moves in a trio of Midwestern states, seriously challenging front-runner Mitt Romney in advance of their Tuesday nominating contests.

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum may be nudging Newt Gingrich out of the way as the favoured candidate of far-right conservatives as he makes big moves in a trio of Midwestern states, seriously challenging front-runner Mitt Romney in advance of their Tuesday nominating contests.

Santorum, a staunch social conservative with a penchant for sweater vests, is well ahead of Romney in Minnesota and Missouri, and running second behind him in Colorado, according to new Public Policy Polling surveys.

The polling company says Santorum is doing well with the states’ Tea Party activists, evangelicals and voters who describe themselves as “very conservative.”

“While Romney and Gingrich have hammered each other in recent weeks, Santorum’s been largely left alone and he’s benefiting from that now,” Tom Jensen wrote on the PPP website.

“It appears right-leaning Republican voters are shifting toward Santorum as their primary alternative to Romney.”

Voters were headed to the polls Tuesday in Minnesota and Colorado, both holding caucuses with 76 delegates at stake in total.

Missouri was holding what’s known as a “beauty contest” primary — it won’t send any delegates to the Republican convention until the state’s March 17th caucuses are held, but the contest is being viewed as a barometer of how primary voters are leaning.

Santorum eked out the narrowest of victories against Romney in last month’s Iowa caucuses, the official launch of the Republican race.

But since his Iowa triumph, he’s had disappointing finishes in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada, unable to make good on his attempts to become the No. 1 conservative alternative to Romney, who’s suspected by the party’s base of being a dreaded moderate.

Gingrich, in fact, has repeatedly suggested that Santorum should drop out of the race to allow him to consolidate the social conservatives, Tea Party activists and evangelicals among the party’s primary voters.

Santorum has refused, boldly predicting over the weekend that he would ultimately prevail to win the party’s nomination. Behind the scenes, some Republican establishment social conservatives — deadset against Gingrich — have apparently been encouraging Santorum to stay in the race.

The one-time senator and his backers have been encouraged by a recent Rasmussen poll that suggests Santorum would have the best chance of beating Obama in November’s presidential election.

Conservative pundits, commentators and news outlets are now publicly rallying behind him.

A story on the National Review’s website on Tuesday asks: “Again, Why Not Santorum?” Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard is also urging voters in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri to give Santorum the opportunity to “replace Gingrich down the road as the alternative to Romney.”

A victory on Tuesday would give Santorum’s campaign a shot in the arm in advance of so-called Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states hold voting contests with more than 200 delegates up for grabs. It could also spur his fundraising efforts, which have lagged well behind his rivals.

“This is a big day for us to see whether all the work that we put in in the past few weeks, when not so much attention was paid here as to Florida and Nevada, pays off,” Santorum said at a Denver rally on Monday night.

He added that Gingrich has “had his chance in the arena and came up short.”

In a sure sign Romney knows Santorum has him on the ropes in Minnesota, his campaign has been reminding voters that the former Pennsylvania senator sought hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants for his state during his years in office.

“We need a next president who’s been strong and proven in fiscal and spending matters,” Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who’s now backing Romney, said in a conference call to reporters.

“He has been part of the big spending establishment in Congress and in the influence peddling.”

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