Romney battles Santorum, Paul in GOP caucuses

By Philip Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 7 2012 6:45 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a campaign stop Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Republican front-runner Mitt Romney battled Rick Santorum and Ron Paul on Tuesday in political caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, hoping to extend his winning streak in the race for the presidential nomination.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich mounted no significant campaign in either state, looking ahead to primaries elsewhere.

Romney prevailed in both Minnesota and Colorado in 2008, the first time he ran for the nomination, but the GOP has become more conservative in both states since then under the influence of tea party activists.

Initial Minnesota returns showed Santorum with 48 percent support; Paul with 24 percent; Romney with 16 percent and Gingrich with 12 percent.

That represented the results of only 34 of 4,137 caucuses, so few that it was impossible to discern a meaningful trend.

There were 37 Republican National Convention delegates at stake in Minnesota and 33 more in Colorado.

In addition, Missouri held a non-binding primary on Tuesday. The state picks its delegates at caucuses next month.

Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, campaigned aggressively in all three states, seeking a breakthrough to revitalize a campaign that has struggled since his narrow first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses a month ago.

Paul, a Texas lawmaker, has yet to win a primary or caucus. He arrived at a caucus site in Coon Rapids, Minn., in early evening to shake hands with early arrivers, and had to squeeze his way through a crowd of autograph seekers.

Romney began the day the leader in the delegate chase, with 101 of the 1,144 needed to capture the nomination at the Republican National Convention this summer in Tampa. Gingrich had 32, Santorum 17 and Paul nine.

Taken together, the number of delegates at stake Tuesday was the largest one-day total yet in the Republican race to pick a rival for President Barack Obama. Even so, the campaigning was a pale comparison to the Iowa caucuses or primaries last month in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.

Television advertising was sparse; neither Colorado nor Minnesota hosted a candidates' debate, and there was relatively little campaigning by the contenders themselves until the past few days.

The same was true in last weekend's Nevada caucuses, which Romney won on the heels of a Florida primary victory days earlier. The same pattern holds in Maine, where caucuses finish on Saturday.

Not until primaries in Michigan and Arizona on Feb. 28 is the campaign likely to regain the intensity that characterized the first few weeks of the year.

Then it roars back to life with a 10-state Super Tuesday on March 6 with 416 convention delegates at stake. Georgia, where Gingrich launched his career in Congress, is the biggest prize that night with 76 delegates. Next is Ohio, which has 63 delegates at stake and where early voting has already begun.

Santorum, in particular, hoped to seize the relative lull to redeem the promise of his Iowa victory.

He campaigned more aggressively this week than any of the other contenders, and he spent the day hopscotching from Colorado to Minnesota to Missouri in hopes of nailing down a victory in one of the states. Touting himself as a true conservative — a slap at Gingrich — he sought to undermine Romney's electability claim at the same time by predicting the former Massachusetts governor would lose to Obama.

Romney responded by assailing Santorum as an advocate of congressional earmarks — shifting the criticism he had leveled at Gingrich when the Georgian seemed a more imposing threat.

In the hours before the caucuses convened, the front-runner sought to lower expectations.

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