Santorum rolls over the “inevitable” Romney

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The Republican establishment's narrative of Mitt Romney's "imevitability" as the party's presidential nominee unraveled Tuesday in just one night.

Rick Santorum's clean sweep of the contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri was a major victory for him in that it boosted his drive to fashion himself as the main conservative opponent to Romney and it injected adrenalin into the argument that Romney doesn't appeal to the GOP's right-wing base.

Romney camp contentions that his losses were not too serious because there were no delegates involved are almost as irrelevant as the paltry number of delegates that have been awarded him thus far. The 83 delegates Romney does have mean almost nothing when stacked up against the 1,100 additional ones he, or anyone else, would need to get the nomination.

Colorado had to have been the biggest shock for Romney who won it in 2008 with more than 60 percent of the vote and where he was expected to roll up a big victory again this week. Right wing activists and evangelicals cast their lot with Santorum, however, giving him a 40 to 35 percent victory over Romney. After taking Colorado, Santorum leads "frontrunner" Romney in contests won, 4-3. He can also bask in the glory of three straight victories in the Midwest, a key region for the 2012 presidential race. The Midwest has many "swing" states and Romney has yet to win any of them.

The Santorum victory in Missouri was also impressive because he won every county and racked up 55 percent of the vote statewide, putting his  total 30 points ahead of Romney's 25.

All that having been said and done, however, the Tuesday primary results were, in more ways than one, a disaster for the Republican Party, at least in the short term.

Clearly evident was an "enthusiasm gap" that simply has to be making a lot of GOP leaders worry. Turnout at the Republican events in the three states Tuesday, overall, was half what it was four years ago.

If Santorum becomes the new "frontrunner" he will join a literal host of other Republican candidates who have taken a turn or two as "front runner" or as "flavor of the month," if you will.

The revolving door for "front runners" has understandably put GOP leaders at great unease. They understand that a new "front runner" appearing every few weeks is far more a function of  voter disgust with all the candidates than it is a function of positive interest in all of them.

The low Romney totals, specifically, reflect a number of problems that voters have with him - his history as a job killer, his record of taking almost every possible position on a number of issues, and his penchant for stashing tons of money in offshore tax havens - to mention only a few. The fact that his "program" to fix the economy is a rehash of all the things that caused the economy to crash in the first place doesn't help him either.

In Missouri, Romney's vote total was 110,000 below what he got in that state four years ago. His Colorado total was 90,000 fewer votes than what he received four years ago and his Minnesota total was short by 70,000. It's a sorry picture for someone who has been campaigning for president for years and for someone who has been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in Super PAC money.

The ball room Romney rented in Colorado, the state where he was supposed to have the biggest win, had less than 100 people in it on Tuesday night. Uncontested Obama caucuses in Minnesota and in Colorado were often packed with hundreds of voters.

When Santorum spoke Tuesday night he also offered little to nothing in terms of solutions to the nation's problems. He sounded as dull and out-of-touch with what concerns voters as did Romney himself.

Santorum showed just how out of touch he is when he said, in fact, that jobs were not the big issue of the day and that instead, the big issue was "what kind of country we are going to be - "one that is free or one that is managed by a big government." At that rate, it may not be too long before Republican voters add him to the reject pile that they have been steadily building. 

The disaster for Republicans in terms of voter enthusiasm, however, is no reason for progressives to rest on their laurels. There is talk among some Republican circles that even if they may eventually  have to concede the presidential race to Barack Obama, they can still mobilize their billionaires and Super PACs to strike where some of them feel they have the best chance this year: Smashing the 53-47 Democratic majority in the Senate.

 The strategy would make sense. Democrats are defending 23 seats in 2012, compared to only 10 for the Republicans. To gain control of the Senate Republicans need a net gain of four seats if Obama is re-elected and only three if he is not.

The Senate, it must be remembered, is often the place where the right wing hunkers down to ride out storms, especially when there is a peoples' upsurge.

Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio warned about this  four years ago when he talked with reporters at the Democratic National Convention. His warning, at that time, was that if Barack Obama won the  2008 November election, he expected Republicans would use the Senate to block almost every progressive program the president came forward with.

The senator also reminded everyone that the Senate, by its very nature, is the more undemocratic body in the U.S. Congress. Small rural Republican states are as strong in the Senate as large urban Democratic ones.

Knowing how the right wing operates, there can be no doubt in any reasonable mind that if the president is reelected the GOP intends to again use the Senate to cripple beyond recognition any and all of his programs. If they control the Senate outright they can be even more effective than they have been this year in stymieing progress. Preventing a GOP takeover of the Senate, then, should be high on everyone's agenda.

Photo: The "inevitability" of Mitt Romney is unraveled in one night after three Santorum victories. Chris Carlson/AP

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