Santorum scores hat trick, upsets Romney in caucus

The Colorado Statesman

At campaign events in the week before Colorado Republicans cast ballots in a presidential preference poll, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum called upon conservatives to “reset this race” with their votes. And at caucuses across the state on Tuesday night, they obliged.

In a stunning upset, Santorum swept the Colorado caucuses and both of the other contests held that day — Minnesota and Missouri Republicans also voted — handing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the intermittent front-runner for the GOP nomination, his most bracing setback in a presidential primary season that has seen half a dozen candidates take the lead since last summer.

Images of presidential candidate Rick Santorum fill a wall of flat-screen TVs alongside the former Pennsylvania senator as he delivers a speech in the futuristic lobby of the Cable Center on the DU campus on Feb. 6.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Winning 44 of Colorado’s 64 counties, Santorum claimed 40 percent of the vote in the nonbinding straw poll, ahead of Romney’s 30 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trailed with 13 percent, followed by Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s 12 percent support.

Rick Santorum supporters watch the former Pennsylvania senator deliver a speech on the eve of Colorado’s Republican caucuses from the balcony ringing DU’s Cable Center on Feb. 6 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“This was a good night for Rick Santorum,” Romney told a crowd of supporters packed into a hall inside the student union on Denver’s Auraria campus. “I want to congratulate Sen. Santorum, but I expect to become the nominee with your help.”

Before continuing with a brief speech excoriating President Barack Obama for failing to turn the economy around since taking office, Romney referenced the caucus results still trickling in.

“The race is too close to call in Colorado at this point. But I’m pretty confident we’ll come in No. 1 or No. 2,” he said with an encouraging grin.

Shortly before Romney spoke in Denver, a jubilant Santorum declared victory in the two already-decided contests before a cheering crowd in St. Charles, Mo.

“Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota,” Santorum crowed, adding that voters showed what could happen “when one candidate isn’t outspent five-to-one by negative ads impugning their integrity and distorting their record,” a reference to Romney’s win over Gringrich in Florida a week earlier.

Ticking off a list that included health care reform and Wall Street bailouts, Santorum charged that “Mitt Romney has the same positions as Barack Obama,” and proposed that Republicans needed to nominate “someone who can get up and make sharp contrast with President Obama.”

He continued: “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

While the few publicly released polls showed Santorum headed for wins in Minnesota and Missouri, the lone recent Colorado survey still had Romney up by 10 points just days before caucuses. (The only other public poll of Colorado caucus voters, conducted in early December by Public Policy Polling, the same firm that released figures last weekend, showed Gingrich with a 19-point lead, underscoring the race’s volatility in the state.)

Last time around, Colorado 2008 caucuses landed on Super Tuesday, along with 23 other states, the most crowded presidential primary day in memory. Already swamped by attention paid by candidates and national media to larger or more volatile states — New York, California, Illinois and Georgia voted the same day — Colorado Republicans added a presidential straw poll to the proceedings, only to watch its results fade swiftly into irrelevance.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters in Denver after delivering a primary night speech in the Tivoli student center on the Auraria campus in Denver on Feb. 7. Romney lost three contests to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum that night, but Colorado results were still up in the air when Romney spoke to the crowd.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Romney trounced his opponents in Colorado — polling well ahead of Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, with Paul lagging in single digits — but it didn’t much matter after all the votes had been tallied, as Romney suspended his campaign two days later, essentially ceding the race to McCain. Late last year, Colorado Republicans decided to move the party’s caucuses up a month — Democrats are holding theirs on the date that had been originally set, March 6 — in order to give the state a more prominent role in picking the party’s nominee.

And that’s exactly what happened.

Romney woke up on Tuesday the clear front-runner, having taken three of the five contests — Santorum eked a win in the Iowa caucuses and Gingrich had his moment out front after winning the South Carolina primary — but went to sleep that night with three fresh losses and a long stretch in front of him before he’d have the chance to notch some wins.

This year’s state caucuses were a virtual mirror image of the ones held four years ago, when Romney — then considered the most electable conservative alternative to front-runner McCain — ran the field to an easy win with 60 percent of the vote. Fast-forward to Tuesday night and it was Santorum in Romney’s role as the conservative spoiler, while the former Colorado favorite managed to attract 19,000 fewer votes than his earlier total, cutting his yield nearly in half.

Romney racked up endorsement after endorsement in the months leading up to Colorado’s caucuses, counting support from a wide swath of the state’s Republican establishment and enjoying an enthusiastic nod by The Denver Post editorial board in Sunday’s edition.

“This race is going to change, and it’s going to change again,” presidential candidate Rick Santorum tells reporters on the eve of the Colorado Republican caucus.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

For his part, Santorum claimed the backing of a handful of GOP luminaries, including former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton and former U.S. Reps. Tom Tancredo and Bob Schaffer, but it could have been the seal of approval bestowed by Colorado Springs-based conservative blogger Michelle Malkin that carried the most weight with the restive electorate.

“For many grass-roots conservatives across the country, Romney and Gingrich are the machine,” Malkin wrote on her widely read blog at the end of January. “And at this point in the game, Rick Santorum represents the most conservative candidate still standing who can articulate both fiscal and social conservative values — and live them.”

Inside a school cafeteria in Lakewood, a cavalcade of rookie caucus-goers — when House District 28 Captain Sherry Collins asked how many were attending a caucus for the first time, a good two-thirds raised their hands — helped hand Santorum a win when the vote was totaled from all the precincts.

“I would love to see it go ‘Not Romney,’ ” said first-time attendee Michael Gordon, who said he made the walk to O’Connell Middle School in order to support Santorum. He said that he had considered backing Gingrich but decided against it. “He’s the smartest one of the bunch, but he’s unelectable, he has too much baggage. We just need to get rid of Obama, whatever it takes.” Surveying the hundreds of Republicans milling around the cafeteria, he added, “If we nominate a moderate, you may get the middle, but you lose the base.”

Another Santorum supporter, Linda Nuss, said she got herself out on a frigid night because the stakes were high. “I want change. I want to be sure that my voice is heard,” she said. “I know that people are expecting Romney to win, but then — people just show up!”

At about 8 p.m. district officers called in results from the Jefferson County precincts meeting at O’Connell: Santorum had 304 votes, Romney had 298, Gingrich had 99 and Paul brought up the rear with 96.

The state GOP had hoped to post most results by 9 p.m. but the totals trickled in slowly, much to the consternation of national news outlets with East Coast deadlines. Call confirmed that Santorum had won Colorado shortly after 11 p.m., still reporting the outcome far faster than caucus states Iowa and Nevada managed to post theirs.

Turnout at the caucuses lagged from the record number of attendees at the 2008 meetings. According to the state GOP, 66,027 Republicans cast ballots in the presidential straw poll, down roughly 6 percent from 70,229 four years ago, when Romney romped the field.

Democrats hammered at the shortfall, claiming it exemplifies a looming “enthusiasm gap” between the parties as the November election approaches. Noting that fewer Republicans have shown up in every state voting so far, the state Democratic Party ripped what it termed “the dispirited party” and laid blame on GOP candidates, which a Democratic spokesman said “disappoint in every region of the country.”

Still, even though Santorum vaulted into the lead this week, Democrats kept their focus on Romney, portraying the results as evidence that even Republicans aren’t warming up to the guy. “[The] more voters learn about Mitt Romney, the less they like him,” said state Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio the morning after Romney’s losses. He predicted that voters will prefer Obama’s record to Romney’s: “Mitt Romney’s priorities are for more of the same rigged rules and recklessness that got our economy into trouble in the first place.”

Making her way through the crowds at the Romney party in downtown Denver, Democratic state Rep. Crisanta Duran — who noted that the watch party was taking place in her district — said she’d decided to drop in after noticing the muted celebration on TV.

“The room was half full, so it looked like they needed some folks to fill it, so we came in to hear what the candidate for president had to say,” she said with a smile before launching into full opposition mode. “Candidate Romney is truly out of touch with the issues facing the residents of this great state, particularly when it comes to economic issues. While I think Romney’s heart is in the right place, at the end of the day I don’t think he has a plan that is going to meet the needs of working families in Colorado.”

Santorum racked up wins across the state, though he performed strongest outside the Denver metro area. He banked double-digit leads in populous El Paso, Larimer, Weld, Mesa and Pueblo counties and ran furthest ahead in Crowley County with almost 63 percent of the vote there.

Romney won 17 counties — including metro-area counties Denver, Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson, Boulder and Broomfield — with his largest share of the vote in Pitkin County, where his 51 percent support put him ahead of Paul’s 19 percent. Santorum and Romney tied in San Juan County with eight votes apiece, and both scored 18 votes in Lake County. Gingrich won just one county, taking 25 votes in Bent County, ahead of Santorum’s 22 votes.

The next contest is in Maine, which has been caucusing this week and reports results Saturday. After that, there’s a long stretch until the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Feb. 28, followed by Washington state’s March 3 caucus and then Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states register their preferences.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com