ST. CHARLES, Mo. — Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum made a calculated decision a few weeks ago.
The cash-strapped candidate chose to skip ahead in the primary calendar to court conservative electorates in the three states that voted Tuesday — Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri — while GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and chief challenger Newt Gingrich battled each other in the expensive state of Florida.
Santorum's gamble paid off.
He broke a four-state losing streak Tuesday by aggressively courting conservative activists, pastors and tea party leaders to overcome Romney's superior organization and fundraising — and challenge Gingrich for the title as the more conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.
Santorum won bragging rights after placing first in Missouri's nonbinding primary. He also won the caucuses in Minnesota. And he was running strong in Colorado.
"Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota," Santorum roared to cheers of "We pick Rick" from a crowd gathered here.
"I don't stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney," he added. "I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."
To some degree, Santorum's wins were a vindication of his strategy to bypass traditional advertising and instead lean on grassroots leaders, neighbor-to-neighbor efforts, and private meetings with conservative kingmakers in the trio of states that voted Tuesday — just as he did in Iowa, where he was declared the winner a few weeks ago.
Over the past two weeks, Santorum visited the three states' most conservative communities to draw swelling crowds. And the leaders of Santorum's successful Iowa campaign descended on Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri to court pastors and tea party leaders alike.
Among his many stops in the past two weeks was a visit to the Missouri factory that stitches his campaign's signature sweater vests.
Santorum badly trailed Romney's superior organization in each state.
But everywhere he went, he urged his smaller — though more enthusiastic — crowds to spread his tea party-leaning message.
"This is about the founders' freedom. This is a country that believes in God-given rights," he said at a victory celebration. "Ladies and gentlemen, freedom is at stake in this election."
He also emphasized his longtime opposition to abortion rights.
In recent days, Santorum had doubled down on the Obama administration's recent requirement that church-affiliated employers cover birth control for their workers regardless of the institutions' religious beliefs.
His advisers claimed that this tact lets him promote his own Catholic faith, cast people of faith as victims and cast Obama as a big-government, power-hungry and anti-Christian leader — all in one paragraph of a speech.
As he began his Tuesday, he told a gathering in the conservative stronghold of Colorado Springs — home base for the Christian group Focus on the Family — that Obama was trampling on their faith.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it's not just your economic rights," said Santorum, vowing to make the issue a centerpiece of his White House bid. "It's your freedom of religion. It's your freedom of speech."
The race now heads to Maine's caucuses, which end Saturday.
Santorum advisers had been largely ignoring Maine and conceding the state to Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a popular figure among the party's libertarian wing who has yet to win a contest. Maine's drawn-out process was a system Santorum's inner-circle didn't expect to do well in, and they have adopted a strategy that avoids spending money on places where there is no viable path to a victory.
The candidate also plans to skip over states where voters could cast ballots early, viewing those states as friendly to Romney because he has the resources needed to organize early.
Money remains a concern for Santorum even though his team has said he has raised $1 million online in the past week. He's hoping that his victories Tuesday open the fundraising spigot even more.
His team was already heading to the next state where Santorum hopes to do well, Washington state. It holds its caucuses March 3.
Santorum has vowed to go all the way to Tampa's GOP convention — even if he isn't the nominee.