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Could GOP contests Tuesday produce a wave for Rick Santorum?

Rick Santorum in Minnesota
It's happening again. Polls aggregated by RealClearPolitics.com show the race for the GOP presidential nomination tightening in the runup to Tuesday night's voting. It's not clear from the data, though, whether the gains by Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are eating into Mitt Romney's lead or just pulling votes away from Newt Gingrich, who's trajectory resembles that of a sine wave.

Nevertheless, as long as Romney struggles to captivate most GOP primary voters, his rivals still have a chance -- provided that one of them can consolidate the anti-Mitt vote. If Santorum starts pulling a huge number of votes away from Gingrich, that's almost as bad for Romney as if Santorum were taking votes directly from him.

Although three states are holding votes Tuesday night, only two of the contests will affect the candidates' delegate counts. Missouri's primary is a vanity exercise; the state GOP will award all of its delegates later through county caucuses and other party events. By contrast, Republican caucus-goers in Colorado and Minnesota will dish out a total of 76 delegates Tuesday. That represents a 50% increase in the delegates claimed thus far but still a small fraction of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination.

Not that Missouri won't matter. If Santorum should prevail there and in Minnesota, as Politico says he may, it will give his fundraising a shot in the arm. It will also bolster his claim to being the conservative alternative to Romney whom Republicans should rally behind.

(As an aside, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling against California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage gives Santorum potent new material for his diatribes against gays and lesbians. Although such comments might play well in some GOP circles, they won't necessarily raise Santorum's standing in the party. His campaign has gained traction as he's convinced voters he's not just a one-note social conservative. The more time he spends talking about the court's ruling, the more he may remind voters of the old, caricatured image of himself. Then again, the ruling might make social issues more important in the GOP campaign, which would be good news for Santorum but bad for Romney.)

Gingrich has said several times that the battle for the nomination will continue all the way to the Republican convention in August. The chances of it doing so, however, seem to depend on whether the field narrows further. The three contests Tuesday aren't likely to cause Gingrich or Paul to fold their tents if Santorum notches a couple of wins, but they would certainly increase the pressure.

ALSO:

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Romney shifts attack ads from Gingrich to Santorum

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-- Jon Healey

Credit: Ben Garvin / Getty Images

 

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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.



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