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After wins, Rick Santorum rips Mitt Romney

Rick Santorum

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Rick Santorum spoke to supporters in Missouri last night.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, fresh off his upset victories in three non-binding nominating contests, has immediately started attacking the Republican frontrunner, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Speaking in a series of TV appearances this morning, Santorum referred to Romney as “Mr. Big Government.”

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On CNN, Santorum said Romney “was for government takeover of health care, was for government takeover of the private sector in the Wall Street bailout, and was for the government takeover of industry and energy with cap-and-trade.”

He pointed out that while Romney has tried to portray himself as a Washington outsider, the only reason he did not spend time in Congress was because he lost his 1994 Senate race against Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy. Santorum said Americans want a leader, rather than a CEO – attacking a core tenet of Romney’s candidacy, that Romney’s business experience makes him best suited to turn the economy around.

Romney had already turned his fire on Santorum before Tuesday’s contests, hitting Santorum for taking earmarks when he was a senator. The attacks on both sides are only likely to intensify after Santorum’s victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri, which are giving Santorum momentum in his attempts to become the more conservative alternative to Romney.

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For Romney, there was no doubt that the results staggered his momentum after decisive victories in Florida and Nevada, but it’s unclear whether the setback will be sustained or momentary. None of the votes were binding. After Maine completes its caucuses Saturday, the next vote will not be until primaries on Feb. 28 in Arizona and Michigan, where he has been heavily favored.

Yet after Romney banked on his vastly superior organizations in Colorado and Minnesota, his weak showing could persuade more conservatives to flock to Santorum.

Romney spoke directly last night about who carried the day.

“This was a good night for Rick Santorum,’’ Romney told supporters in Denver. “But I expect to become your nominee.’’

He then quickly reassumed a front-runner posture, pivoting into how President Obama’s promises, many made in Denver when he accepted the Democratic nomination, have been barren and peppering his speech with a mantra he uses often in stump speeches: “President Obama has failed, and we will succeed.’’

The Missouri primary was considered little more than a straw poll, with the actual delegates decided at the state caucuses on March 17. And both caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado were nonbinding, with the delegates distributed at state conventions in the weeks to come.

Yet, the decisive wins by Santorum were startling:

■ With 99 percent of precincts reporting in Colorado, he took 40 percent of the vote, with Romney trailing with 35 percent. Newt Gingrich had 13 percent and Texas Representative Ron Paul 12 percent. “Obviously it’s a surprising result, but one that underscores the dynamic nature of this race,’’ said Ryan Call, the chairman of Colorado’s GOP. “Colorado voters are an independent-minded group.’’

■ In Minnesota, with 88 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum led with 45 percent of the vote. Romney, who won in Minnesota in 2008, could do no better than third place, at 17 percent. Paul took second place, with 27 percent.

■ In Missouri, Santorum led Romney 55 percent to 25 percent, with Paul garnering 12 percent, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting.

Missouri was considered particularly important to Santorum, since Gingrich was not able to get on the ballot. That afforded the former Pennsylvania senator an opportunity to present himself as the true conservative in a head-to-head match with Romney.

A jubilant Santorum told supporters in St. Charles, Mo., that his victories would be heard loud across the country. “They were probably heard loud in Massachusetts,’’ he said.

Although Romney’s campaign had begun early yesterday to downplay the eventual results, the breadth of Santorum’s wins were surprising. The scarcity of reliable polling data had made it difficult to predict the outcomes, particularly in Minnesota and Colorado where turnout was difficult to predict.

As the race heads toward next month’s Super Tuesday, Romney will try to reassert his standing atop the field. The only debate of the month, on Feb. 22 in Arizona, now looms larger.

While the Romney campaign could argue that the losses were superficial, his rivals will pounce on his poor performance as a repudiation of his candidacy by the GOP’s conservative wing, particularly in Minnesota.

Super Tuesday’s role in determining the GOP’s presidential nominee is now outsized. Questions about Romney’s ability to consolidate a sturdy base are sure to dog him in Bible Belt states such as Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Gingrich’s home state of Georgia, which has the largest delegate prize on March 6.

At stake in the 10 states will be 437 delegates - nearly two-fifths of the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination. That puts a premium on organization, where Romney has shown himself to be strongest.

“The thing that Romney’s got going for him is that he’s planned for a long campaign. He’s got the money,’’ said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, another Super Tuesday state. “A tough battle gets him ready for November.’’

Nevertheless, the symbolic value of winning will undoubtedly help build momentum and could aid fund-raising for a campaign like Santorum’s that has operated on a shoestring budget. More importantly, it could help diminish the aura of invincibility and inevitability around the Romney campaign.

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.
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