"I think this started in Florida, when Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich went at each other with such personal attacks," says Chuck Laudner, a longtime ally of Rick Santorum, calling late on election night from Minneapolis. "They weren't really on the issues. It was investments and name calling, and I think it turned people off. People here looked at that and said there's got to be an alternative."
Laudner, the Iowa conservative political operative who became nearly a household name as the owner and driver of the "Chuck truck" that carried Santorum across Iowa before that state's caucuses, spent the last ten days in Minnesota, trying to persuade influential Republicans to support Santorum. "Ten days ago, I couldn't get a single statehouse or senate member to go public with an endorsement," he says. Then, after the fighting in Florida and its continuation in Nevada, things changed. "By the end of the week, we got a couple of endorsements, and they helped us get a couple more, and then we had a lot of names."
The shift to Santorum was fast and overwhelming. In the end, Santorum beat Romney by 27 points in a state Romney had won by 19 points back in 2008. Santorum scored an even bigger victory in Missouri's beauty-contest, nonbinding primary, beating Romney by 30 points. And even in Colorado, where the race was closer, Santorum came out ahead. For a candidate who hadn't won since his narrow and belated victory in Iowa, it was three victories in one night. Santorum has now won four contests to Romney's three and Gingrich's one.
"Conservatism is alive and well," Santorum told cheering supporters in St. Charles, Missouri. "I don't stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."
Santorum doesn't do polls -- he's never had the money -- and didn't really know how big his lead was. On Tuesday afternoon, members of the Santorum circle were suggesting he would win, but not by much. "We are looking at a five-point win in Minnesota, a four-point win in Colorado, and a three-point win in Missouri tonight," one said before any votes had been counted. At the time, that seemed like spin; later, it turned out to be understatement.
For Santorum, the victories were a vindication of his decision to focus on jobs, especially reviving American manufacturing; on social issues; and on drawing distinctions between himself and Romney on health care and other issues. In St. Charles Tuesday night, Santorum took care to note that his jobs plan helped him win in "the industrial heartland of Missouri, where they still make things." And on the rest, Santorum said, "On those issues -- health care, the environment, cap-and-trade, and on the Wall Street bailouts -- Mitt Romney has the same positions as Barack Obama."
Romney's team knew defeat was coming. On Tuesday morning, as it became clear Romney would not have a good night, his campaign's political director, Rich Beeson, sent out a memo trying to put things in perspective. "John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents to notch a few wins too," Beeson wrote. "But unlike the other candidates, our campaign has the resources and organization to keep winning over the long run."
Beeson's argument was precisely what terrified Santorum supporters who have been searching for months for a way to stop Romney. "The spanking that Romney gave to Gingrich in Florida was one that my contacts in Minnesota woke up and said, Oh my goodness, Newt can't win, Newt can't beat this guy," says Jamie Johnson, who was Santorum's state coalitions director in Iowa. Johnson spent much of the last week trying to convince Minnesota politicos, many of them former supporters of Michele Bachmann, to back Santorum. Some of those conversations, he says, became "more of an assessment of Gingrich that if we really want a conservative who is the whole package, Santorum is our guy."
As he did in Iowa, Santorum won by being the last plausible alternative for conservatives. For months, the anti-Romney crowd has flirted with one alternative after another. During that time, Santorum plugged along, confident, or at least hopeful, that his old-fashioned campaigning would pay off in the end. He surged at the end in Iowa but didn't get to claim victory because the early, uncertified returns showed Romney ahead by eight votes. Romney got the victor's boost, and the campaign had gotten to South Carolina by the time the Iowa Republican party issued its final, certified count showing Santorum the narrow winner. It was a victory Santorum never got to celebrate.
Now he has three more. As the new top alternative -- Gingrich was invisible Tuesday night, a non-factor in all the races -- Santorum knows he will likely become the target of Romney's legendary attacks. Indeed, the attacks started Monday morning, as polls began to show Santorum gaining ground.
After the returns came in, I asked Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley what he thought about Rich Beeson's message. Sure, Santorum did well on Tuesday, but doesn't Romney have the money and infrastructure to outdistance Santorum, and everyone else, in the long run?
"What an inspiring message," Gidley said sarcastically. "That is really inspiring. I can't wait to put a bumper sticker on my truck that says MONEY-INFRASTRUCTURE 2012."
"No one had more money and infrastructure than Hillary Clinton, and hope and change wiped her off the map," Gidley continued. "We'll have money, and we'll have infrastructure, but our nominee has to have a message that people can get behind and inspires people."