SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney's supporters are calling the day he lost three states to rival Rick Santorum "Horrible Tuesday."
Santorum's wins Tuesday in Missouri, Minnesota and especially Colorado are casting new doubts about Romney's strength in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.
"Colorado was a disappointment," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has campaigned for Romney around the country. He couldn't explain the loss but said the campaign was making "no excuses."
Still, Chaffetz labeled the caucuses in the three states as little more than "beauty contests" where no delegates were actually awarded and the campaign didn’t invest a lot of resources.
It's no secret that Romney had expected to win in Colorado, a Western state with many fellow Mormons. Romney, who'd already come out on top in New Hampshire and Florida, reached 50 percent of the vote in Nevada's Feb. 4 caucus largely due to a big turnout by LDS Republicans there.
"I don't think anybody saw the results in Colorado coming," said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University. He said the results demonstrate Republicans are far from settled on a candidate.
"Going into this, Romney had such a superior advantage in campaign cash and organization and all of these metrics we kind of use to judge the quality of a campaign," Saunders said.
Santorum, though, had a more conservative message and made more of an effort to reach voters with it. "He didn't have a lot of money, but he spent a lot of time here," Saunders said.
Add to that Santorum's "ability to network with social conservatives and even some of the more suburban mainstream Republicans" and that spells an unexpected loss for Romney, he said.
Even Colorado's Mormon vote, Saunders said, was concentrated in the same conservative Colorado Springs area where evangelical Republicans dominate. Many evangelicals don’t view Mormons like Romney as fellow Christians.
What Romney needs to take from Tuesday's results, Saunders said, is that he has to come up with a way to appeal to the "hardest of the hardcore" conservatives who turn out for GOP caucus votes.
"Romney has not been able to define himself in a way that's going to get the conservative portion of the Republican party excited," Saunders said. "It's going to be very, very difficult."
But forcing Romney to the right, he said, would make it harder for him to attract the independent voters he would need as the nominee to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
"It's going to do a lot more damage to Romney," Saunders said.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said Santorum's wins could give him the bounce he didn't get after the Iowa caucuses in early January.
Romney initially won the Iowa caucus by a handful of votes. But later in January, the official results of the first test of the 2012 field gave the race to Santorum.
"A lot of conservatives would be happy with Santorum," Hagle said, unlike the other candidate in the race who has beaten Romney in a primary, former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich trounced Romney in South Carolina, a state with many evangelical voters. The fourth contender for the GOP nomination, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, has yet to win a state.
Even after Santorum's wins, Romney continues to lead in the GOP delegate count. He had 94 pledged delegates before the results of Saturday's Maine caucuses were in, according to the Associated Press, trailed by Santorum with 74, Gingrich with 29 and Paul with 8. It takes 1,144 delegates to secure the Republican nomination.
Hagle said Romney must make conservative voters more comfortable with him.
"That's really the fundamental problem Mitt has," he said. "With Romney, you may get the feeling he's more detached. … I believe what he says, but I can see where a lot of people might say, 'We're not sure. We'd like to see more passion.'"
Some congressional Republicans have sent a similar message to Romney this week, complaining to Politico that he's been playing it too safe and should see Tuesday's results as a signal he needs to make a shift.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, shared their concerns that conservatives in the party want to know who the nominee will be "sooner rather than later" but acknowledged that might be wishful thinking.
"The Santorum victories this week did have an impact on what was becoming a real sense of inevitability behind Mitt," Lee said. "I don't think conservatives are going to coalesce behind one candidate until there's an heir apparent."
Lee, seen as a tea party leader, has not endorsed a presidential candidate and doesn't plan to, choosing to use his clout to back Senate contenders in key races.
The presidential race, he said, "is still up in the air. There is no consensus among conservatives who is the best candidate for conservatives. Each of the remaining candidates has made a persuasive case why he's the guy."
Lee said he trusts that "whichever man comes out on top is going to be the man who's best equipped to beat Obama." He said he expects Romney to be the nominee.
"I'm not 100 percent certain of it, but I do think it's going to be likely," Lee said, predicting that by April, Romney could be in a position to claim the nomination.
He said if Romney becomes the nominee, he "absolutely" will have the support of conservatives. "I think Mitt Romney is a true conservative," Lee said. "Conservatives are not going to have a problem getting behind him."
Romney's campaign is now focused on winning the next primary states to vote, Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28, and the Super Tuesday races that follow on March 6.
"Santorum has had difficulty in states where a lot of people vote, that require a broader outreach," said Kirk Jowers, a longtime Romney supporter and head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Jowers said it's not clear who is Romney's chief rival is going forward.
"I think this it's a very legitimate question," he said. "Santorum and Gingrich have each had some victories and some colossal no-shows. Neither of them has shown the ability to mount a sustained campaign against Romney."
Chaffetz said Romney is still the candidate to beat.
"You look at the vote totals," the congressman said. "Slice them and dice them any way you want, Mitt Romney has been dominating."
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