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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gives a thumbs up gesture as he arrives at his primary night rally at the St. Charles Convention Center in St. Charles, Mo., on Feb. 7, 2012. (Sarah Conard/Reuters/Sarah Conard/Reuters)
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gives a thumbs up gesture as he arrives at his primary night rally at the St. Charles Convention Center in St. Charles, Mo., on Feb. 7, 2012. (Sarah Conard/Reuters/Sarah Conard/Reuters)

A clean sweep for Rick Santorum in GOP votes Add to ...

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum scored a major victory on Tuesday by beating Mitt Romney in three Midwest nominating contests, signalling trouble ahead not just for the front-runner but also for Newt Gingrich.

The stunning hat trick for Santorum, a staunch social conservative with a penchant for sweater vests, saw him more than double Mr. Romney in the Missouri primary, taking 55 per cent of the vote compared to Mr. Romney's 25 per cent.

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He also handily won the Minnesota caucuses, with unofficial results suggesting he took 45 per cent of the vote. Libertarian congressman Ron Paul placed second at 27 per cent, Mr. Romney took 17 per cent and Mr. Gingrich brought up the rear with just 11 per cent of the vote.

And he managed to beat Mr. Romney in the Colorado caucuses, a contest the former Massachusetts governor had been favoured to win.

Mr. Santorum took about 40 per cent of the vote compared to Romney's 35 per cent. Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Paul essentially tied for third at 13 and 12 per cent respectively.

Mr. Santorum was gleeful during his Missouri victory speech in St. Charles, Mo., marvelling at his Romney shellacking.

“Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota. We doubled him up here and in Minnesota!” he said to his cheering supporters.

He took sharpest aim at U.S. President Barack Obama, however, pushing red-hot conservative buttons by telling the crowd: “He thinks he knows better. He thinks he’s smarter than you. He thinks he should be able to rule over all of you.”

Mr. Santorum added he wasn’t satisfied “to stand here to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

Mr. Romney was gracious in his defeat to Mr. Santorum, congratulating his rival before turning his attention to Mr. Obama in a concession speech in Colorado.

“Under his own definition, Obama has failed. We will succeed,” he said.

The Missouri contest has been dubbed a “beauty contest” primary – it won’t send any delegates to the Republican convention until the state’s March 17th caucuses are held. Mr. Gingrich didn’t qualify to get on the ballot in Missouri, and Mr. Romney didn’t spend much money there.

But Missouri was considered a barometer of how primary voters, unaffected by a barrage of negative advertising, are leaning. It gives Mr. Santorum’s campaign a much-needed shot of adrenalin.

Indeed, while all three contests held Tuesday are technically meaningless, they are nonetheless viewed as a way to gain serious momentum heading into the crucial next few weeks of the campaign.

The results show Mr. Romney still has a major problem on his hands connecting with the party’s base, who clearly harbour serious misgivings about the front-runner. But he wasn’t the only one rebuked by Mr. Santorum’s triumphs in the socially conservative Midwest – the results suggest the one-time senator may be nudging Mr. Gingrich out of the way as the favoured candidate of far-right conservatives.

The next primaries are not until Feb. 28, and Mr. Santorum will argue that his strong showing in the Midwest proves he’s the best conservative alternative to Mr. Romney.

Public Policy Polling, the pollster that put Mr. Santorum in front in both Missouri and Minnesota, says he does well with the Midwest’s 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.”

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

But following his Iowa triumph, he had disappointing finishes in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada, unable to make good on his attempts to convince social conservatives that he’s a better alternative to Mr. Romney than Mr. Gingrich.

Mr. Gingrich, in fact, has repeatedly suggested that Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 – dead set against Mr. Gingrich – have apparently been encouraging Mr. Santorum to stay in the race.

“I feel great that Minnesota is going to change the direction of this race tonight,” Mr. Santorum said as he campaigned in the state on Tuesday.

Mr. Santorum and his backers have been encouraged by a recent Rasmussen poll that suggests he’d 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 Mr. Santorum the opportunity to “replace Gingrich down the road as the alternative to Romney.”

Mr. Santorum’s big night comes less than a month before so-called Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states hold voting contests with more than 200 delegates up for grabs. It’s expected to help spur his fundraising efforts, which have lagged well behind his rivals.

In a sure sign Mr. Romney knew Mr. Santorum had him on the ropes in Minnesota, his campaign reminded 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 Mr. 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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