DENVER - Rick Santorum had a breakthrough night on Tuesday, winning presidential contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, all of which is expected to breathe new life into his campaign and slow Mitt Romney's march to the Republican presidential nomination.
Santorum was the runaway winner in the nonbinding Missouri primary, getting more than half the votes as Romney finished a distant second and Ron Paul was a weak third. Santorum also cruised in the Minnesota caucuses, and was projected to squeeze past Romney in Colorado's caucuses.
The victories provided fresh momentum to the former Pennsylvania senator's campaign and boosted his fundraising prospects heading toward Super Tuesday early next month.
Romney had hoped to extend his recent winning streak to strengthen his claim to the mantle of the presumptive nominee. But he was prepared for losses as Santorum made an aggressive run in all three contests Tuesday.
At an election night party in Missouri, Santorum boldly told supporters: "I don't stand here and claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."
Paul, who has yet to secure a win in the 2012 sweepstakes, mobilized his loyal support networks in the three states, but his best finish was second place in Minnesota.
Newt Gingrich did not compete in Missouri and spent limited time in Colorado and Minnesota. The former House speaker looked past Tuesday's contests and instead campaigned in Ohio, one of several delegate-rich states voting March 6 on Super Tuesday, when he hopes to jump-start his struggling candidacy.
Together, the three states voting Tuesday will eventually award 128 delegates. But Missouri was a "beauty contest" with no delegates at stake, while Minnesota and Colorado were nonbinding events with delegates to be chosen this spring.
An air of viability
At stake Tuesday night was the prestige of winning. And Santorum, whose campaign has struggled since he narrowly won the Iowa caucuses in early January, restored an air of viability to his candidacy.
By defeating Romney, Santorum believes, he could reset the race and help create the perception that he, and not Gingrich, is the conservative alternative to the establishment front-runner.
Romney shifted his efforts in recent days to Colorado, where he has a deeper ground organization and won the 2008 caucuses with 60 percent of the vote. Campaigning Tuesday morning at a huge RV showroom in Loveland, Colo., Romney said, "Colorado's got something to say about who our nominee's gonna be, and I think I'm gonna be that nominee."
Later, as results from the three states came in, he told supporters in Denver: "This was a good night for Rick Santorum. I want to congratulate Senator Santorum, but I expect to become the nominee with your help."
The Minnesota and Missouri contests were early barometers of Romney's support in some of the key Midwestern states he would need to win in a general election against President Obama. And Colorado, considered a critical battleground in the fall general election, was a test of Romney's strength in a swing state that Obama's re-election advisers consider a must-win.
The candidates spent considerably less money and time in these three states than in the contests that preceded them in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada. Now the race enters a February lull. After the Maine caucuses, which will end on Saturday, there are no primaries or caucuses until the Arizona and Michigan primaries on Feb. 28 -- two states that will generate intense engagement from all the candidates. Romney, in particular, is planning to compete aggressively in both.
Romney strategy memo
Romney officials labored to preserve an aura of inevitability around his campaign, releasing a strategy memorandum Tuesday promoting his financial and organizational advantage over the long haul.
"Mitt Romney is the only candidate with the organizational strength and broad-based appeal to secure delegates in all remaining primaries and caucuses," national political director Rich Beeson wrote. "Of course, there is no way for any nominee to win first place in every single contest -- John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents to notch a few wins, too."
Beeson dismissed Gingrich's calculation of a rebound in Southern states holding March contests as "a flight of fancy."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.