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Santorum wins big. Is it a big nothing for the GOP race?

Santorum's victories in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado mean bigger challenges for Romney and bett

After victories in Florida and Nevada, it seemed Republicans, even Tea Partiers, Evangelicals and otherwise "very conservative" Republicans, were finally consolidating around Mitt Romney.

That was the narrative on Sunday. By Monday, all that had changed. A new poll released by Public Policy Polling showed that Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator considered the most socially conservative of the candidate, was going to have a very big day, with wins in Missouri and Minnesota, and a strong second-place finish in Colorado.

As of midnight EST, that prediction was about right. Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado all went to Santorum. Romney came in second in Missouri and third in Minnesota (pending final results, he was second in Colorado). Santorum won 55 per cent in Missouri to Romney's 25, 46 per cent to Romney's 16 in Minnesota (Ron Paul won 27 per cent). In 2008, Romney won Minnesota.

This is a big win for Santorum or big nothing, depending on how you square it. Tuesday's victories help revive his campaign, which had been flagging since Iowa. But Minnesota's and Colorado's caucus results, like Iowa's, are non-binding, and Missouri doesn't pick its party delegates until later in the year.

But in many ways, a win for Santorum is another way of saying a loss for Romney. That's what Tuesday was about -- a warning that the conservative heart of the Republican party is wary of a Mormon millionaire who soaks his opponents in attack ads and whose bleeding-heart liberal health reform law was the model for Obamacare. Newt Gingrich recently compared Romney to Barack Obama and billionaire George Soros and it looks as if those attacks have paid off. For Rick Santorum. The American heartland is the native soil of American conservatism. It's no surprise voters there went for a devout Catholic who speaks of doomsday and the evils of stem-cell research.

Indeed, while Gingrich and Romney have sparred relentlessly over the past 30 days, Santorum has gone unscathed while benefiting from the fallout. But the honeymoon is over. On Tuesday, the Romney campaign downplayed that day's vote while turning its attention to Santorum, accusing him of being a "big government conservative" and then cribbing his well-received freedom of religion message (which, in the language of the looking-glass, means anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage).

Romney skipped Missouri because it didn't have delegates at stake. To Santorum, this is why Missouri was a more honest assessment of who the most viable candidate is. Santorum won every single county in Missouri and Romney didn't spend a dime. Even so, he has more money, more organization and more experience running for the White House. In Florida, more than 90 per cent of ads were negative and most were from Romney's camp. The onslaught continued in Nevada, and now that Santorum is surging, he can expect the same treatment through March, the earliest we will know which candidate will be chosen.

Santorum's win on Tuesday complicated an already complicated GOP nomination process. First, new rules by the Republican party mean that delegates are awarded proportionally to winners, instead of the winner-takes-all approach of the past. That gives every candidate incentive to run longer, even Gingrich, who hasn't won since South Carolina.

The longer Gingrich stays, the happier Obama is, because Gingrich is tearing Romney apart even as he loses. Romney, meanwhile, is trying to play a short and long game at the same time, with one eye on Gingrich and one eye on Obama. Now he has to watch Santorum, too, and Santorum is now a viable candidate to not only be the not-Romney but perhaps to lead a third party spawned from the cracks long-ago evident in the GOP.

Then again, Gingrich. By March, the earliest we will see a dominant figure arise, the primaries will move back to the American south, where Gingrich is a shoo-in, just as he was in South Carolina, where there was a surge in voter turnout that rivaled every primary since. Even with no delegates at stake, Santorum's victories, combined with proportional delegates to each winner, mean bigger challenges for Romney and better chances for Gingrich.