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Santorum victories over Romney show weakness of Republican field

Just as Mitt Romney was starting to focus on fighting Barack Obama rather than his fellow Republicans, the on-again-off-again front-runner for his party's presidential nomination faces another challenge, losing three out of three races on Tuesday.

Rick Santorum, the most socially conservative candidate still in the race, won all three contests by solid margins. This comes after the results in the first caucus, in the state of Iowa, were revised in late January, giving Santorum a narrow victory over Romney.

The results dash Romney's hope that he could quickly clinch the nomination and quickly shift focus from attacking fellow members of his party to Barack Obama. The results also show how dissatisfied Republican voters are with their current crop of candidates.

The results also show how dissatisfied Republican voters are with their current crop of candidates. Reuters

What it means for the candidates

Of the eight races so far, Santorum has now won half to Romney's three and Newt Gingrich's one.

Although it was Santorum's night, Romney still is considered the front-runner for a number of reasons, especially in terms of the money he has raised.

Taking into account both the amount of money Romney's campaign has raised and money raised by groups – political action committees – that support him, Romney has raised $87.3 million and spent $43.8 million through the end of 2011, the latest figures we have.

In comparison, Gingrich and groups supporting him have only raisd $14.9 million and already spent $11.6 million of that. Santorum is not even in the same league, having raised only $3.1 million, of which he has spent $2.7 million.

It's too soon to know if these wins will help Santorum raise more money, but even if it does, it might come too late for him to mount the kind of nationwide campaign that would challenge Romney.

Santorum has to ramp up his campaign quickly. On 6 March, 10 states will go to the polls, referred to as Super Tuesday. For Santorum to build on his momentum, he'll have to make his mark then.

With so many races on a single day, face-to-face campaigning will be less important than the air war – the battle of television advertising. The cost of TV ads favours the well-funded Romney.

Last night underscored the challenges for Romney, not just in the primary races but also if he becomes the nominee to challenge Barack Obama.

Romney hadn't campaigned heavily in the states that he lost last night, and now it's clear that he can't afford such complacency. The Washington Post said:

“For Romney, his poor showing Tuesday raised anew the question that has dogged his candidacy all along: Can the relatively moderate, former Massachusetts governor become an acceptable standard-bearer of a party that is increasingly dominated by evangelical conservatives and tea party activists who have long been skeptical of Romney?”

For Newt Gingrich, the night was a disaster. Santorum now has a much more credible claim as the conservative alternative to Romney's moderate record.

What it means for the Republican Party

The results show weakness for all of the candidates and some real problems for the Republican Party in their quest to oust Barack Obama.

Nate Silver, the New York Times' political polling analyst, said:

“...polls show that a large number of Republicans have tepid enthusiasm for their field. And this has been reflected in the turnout so far, which is down about 10 percent from 2008 among Republican registrants and identifiers.”

The conundrum for the Republican Party is this: Republican voters are enthusiastic about beating Obama, but they are not enthusiastic about the candidates their party has put forward to beat Obama.

The protracted race will also mean that the Republican Party will spend millions and millions of dollars before they begin their challenge to Obama. At the end of last year, Barack Obama and his party had raised $228.8 million and spent $123.4 million.

The Wall Street Journal quoted Al Cardenas, president of the Conservative Political Action Committee, as saying of a lengthy nomination battle:

"That will be very tough for the party if millions of dollars more are spent on Republicans attacking Republicans."

The next races are in eight days, when voters in the midwest state of Michigan and the southwestern state of Arizona go to the polls.