ST. CHARLES, Mo. -- Rick Santorum was on his way to the big night that his campaign badly needed Tuesday, winning GOP contests in Missouri and Minnesota while in a close race with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Colorado's caucuses.
No delegates would be awarded in any of those contests. Beyond bragging rights, however, they could boost the former Pennsylvania senator's fund-raising and allow him to argue that he offers a better alternative than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for Republicans searching for an alternative to front-runner Romney.
Mr. Gingrich wasn't even on the ballot in Missouri, which held a nonbinding primary -- a beauty contest. He is confining his effort in the state to its caucus process next month that will select the state's delegation to the GOP national convention in Tampa. The Colorado and Minnesota straw polls could influence the state's eventual delegate decisions -- that selection process began Tuesday night in votes alongside the presidential test, but those results were not officially binding either.
Anticipating the good news from Missouri, Mr. Santorum waited for the collective returns in St. Charles. TV networks and the Associated Press called the state for him less than an hour after the polls closed.
In Minnesota, the caucus votes came in more slowly, but television networks quickly predicted that Mr. Santorum would win there as well.
Mr. Romney was actually running third there, in a state that he won four years ago, portraying himself as the conservative alternative to the eventual winner, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Mr. Romney was hoping for better things from Colorado, although the early numbers there favored Mr. Santorum as well.
Whatever the results in the two caucus states, the evening gave Mr. Santorum his first victory since he opened the nomination battle with a victory in Iowa's caucuses.
In a relatively slow month compared to the frenetic campaigning of January, the next contests that will award actual delegates come on Feb. 28 when Michigan and Arizona hold binding primaries.
Mr. Santorum can now try to leverage his strong performance to attract the financial resources he will need to compete credibly there and in the vastly larger battlefield that will follow in March's Super Tuesday and farther on down the campaign trail.
The results, while an unmistakable disappointment to the Romney campaign, offered at least one tactical consolation in preserving a divided opposition. Two rivals, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich, will continue to compete for traditional conservatives while Texas Rep. Ron Paul will continue to lure the younger voters and others attracted by his unique mix of free-market economics and a foreign policy based on nonintervention.
In Missouri, with three-fifths of the vote counted, Mr. Santorum had a landslide lead, topping the vote totals of all his rivals combined. With 62 percent of the vote counted, he had a commanding 55 percent lead, followed by Mr. Romney at 25 percent and Mr. Paul at 12 percent. Mr. Romney was leading in communities surrounding St. Louis but Mr. Santorum swept almost every other county in the state.
In Minnesota, with just about 15 percent of the precincts counted, Mr. Santorum had another big lead, with 43 percent of the early votes, followed by Mr. Paul, 27 percent, and Mr. Romney, the national front-runner, attracting just 18 percent. He was followed by Mr. Gingrich at 12 percent.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is politics editor at the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O'Toole at: email@example.com, or 412-263-1562.