Is Rick Santorum's Sweep A Game Changer? (The Note)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

Even before any of the votes had been tallied last night, Rick Santorum told supporters earlier in the day, "I feel great that Minnesota is going to change the direction of this race tonight."

He got his win in Minnesota, and add two more in Missouri and Colorado to that equation and the former Pennsylvania senator just might be right.

Last night's results amounted to kick-start to the Pennsylvania senator's campaign and a serious rebuke to Mitt Romney.

Though Missouri's primary was little more than a "beauty contest" (caucuses held on March 17 will actually count) Santorum's margin of victory - 30 percentage points over Romney - was decisive.

In Minnesota, Santorum left the competition in the dust. With all but a small percentage of precincts there reporting as of this morning, Santorum bested second-place finisher Ron Paul, 44.8 percent to 27.2 percent. Paul finished ahead of Romney by 10 percentage points.

Consider this: four years ago, Romney trounced the rest of the field in Minnesota. He won the state's caucuses by a 19 percentage point margin, 41 percent to 22 percent, over the eventual Republican nominee, John McCain.  Four years ago, Romney won 45 of the state's 87 counties.

On Tuesday night, Romney appears to have failed to win even one county, falling prey to Santorum who had strong showings in every corner of the state, including the most populous counties that include the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

But Colorado was last night's real shocker. Santorum clawed his way to victory in a state that Romney was expected to win. It was close but it wasn't a squeaker. Santorum mustered just over 40 percent of the vote compared to Romney's roughly 35 percent.

Last night's results did serious damage to the "Mitt Romney will sail to the nomination" narrative. It also highlights Romney's continued struggle to win over skeptical conservative GOP voters and energize the base.

"I don't stand up here claiming to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney," Santorum said during his victory speech in Missouri, before the results from Colorado were known. "I am here claiming to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."

After big wins in Florida and Nevada, the conventional wisdom was that Romney had vanquished his strongest rival - Newt Gingrich - and had this nomination all but sewn up. But, the voters of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri did not get the message.

Santorum has now won more states that Romney.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? ABC News' Political Director Amy Walter looks into her crystal ball: Expect Romney and the pro-Romney Super PAC to start to reload and regroup in Arizona and Michigan - the next two major contests on the docket on Feb 28. Romney is hoping his money and organizational muscle will pull him through in these states, much like money and organization helped him win Florida. Either way, the nomination fight continues and Romney will once again have to bat away the questions about the lack of enthusiasm among GOP voters for his candidacy. Another big loser tonight: Newt Gingrich. He's betting on a good showing on Super Tuesday, March 6th. But, for now at least, Santorum, not Newt, owns the mantle of the "conservative alternative" to Romney. As for Santorum, he was already making clear during a round of morning interviews that he plans to focus less on Arizona and more on Michigan, a state where Romney has a home-field advantage.

FLASHBACK. From a Romney campaign memo circulated on Tuesday titled: "The Road Ahead - A Reality Check": "As our campaign has said from the outset, Mitt Romney is not going to win every contest.  John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents will notch a few wins, too.  But unlike the other candidates, our campaign has the resources and organization to keep winning over the long run.  A winning conservative message, hard work, and old-fashioned delegate math will win this race for Governor Romney."

ABC's John Berman reported for "Good Morning America," on Rick Santorum's trifecta last night. WATCH: and ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd breaks down the significance of the former senator's wins. WATCH:

WHAT HAPPENED IN COLORADO? ABC's Elizabeth Hartfield offers an after-action report on Santorum's win over Romney in Colorado: Romney won Colorado with 60 percent of the vote in 2008. El Paso County, where Colorado Springs is located, provides a large hub of GOP votes. In 2008, Romney won with 58 percent. McCain got 17 percent. Last night Santorum claimed a strong victory in the county - 47.1 percent to Romney's 31 percent. Another notable county is Mesa County, where Grand Junction is located. Romney won this county in 2008 with 67 percent of the vote - a 51 percent margin of victory over McCain. Last night he lost the county to Santorum by a double digit margin - 47.1 percent to 35.8 percent. In Larimer County, Santorum beat Romney by another double digit margin - 44.1 percent to 29.7 percent. Romney swept this county in 2008 with 59 percent of the vote. McCain only got 15 percent. In 2008 70,006 votes were cast- about 2 percent of the voting eligible population. Last night that number was down a bit, though not substantially - 65,916 votes were cast (around 2 percent of the voting eligible population).



SANTORUM'S WINNING MESSAGE. "Conservatism is alive and well," Rick Santorum triumphantly announced to supporters Tuesday night after winning the states of Minnesota and Missouri, ABC's Shushannah Walshe reports from St. Charles, Mo.  "Your votes today were not just heard loud and wide across the states of Missouri and Minnesota, but they were heard loud and louder all across this country and particularly in a place I suspect maybe in Massachusetts, they were heard particularly loud tonight," Santorum said, referring to Romney headquarters in Boston. He then set his sights squarely on President Obama. "He thinks he's smarter than you," Santorum said. "He think he's someone who is a privileged person, who should be able to rule over you." He then compared the two saying the former Massachusetts governor "has the same positions as Obama and in fact would not be the best person to fight for your voices and freedom in America."

NOTED: Time Magazine's Mark Halperin called Santorum's Missouri remarks, "one of the better speeches Santorum has given in this campaign. He was conversational and inspirational at the same time. Interestingly, Santorum delivered without either a Teleprompter or written text. He drove a message that was optimistic and forward looking. And Romney-style, he trained his guns on his GOP rivals and Obama simultaneously."

NEWT GINGRICH TURNS TO OHIO. "On a day that was not kind to Newt Gingrich, he traveled to a place he hopes will help get him back in the saddle next month: Ohio," The New York Times' Rich Oppel reports. "Dealt a big defeats in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses on Tuesday, Mr. Gingrich is campaigning for two days across Ohio, which does not vote until Super Tuesday - March 6 - but is a place he feels he can win. A strong showing in this state, with its 66 delegates, would help him claw back from disappointing showings in Florida and Nevada and play into his strategy of trying to regain momentum in conservative Southern states and working-class battlegrounds that hold contests on Super Tuesday or later. At a Tuesday morning speech at a chili restaurant in Cincinnati, Mr. Gingrich suggested that he might even be leading the race here, though it is far from clear where he actually stands against Mitt Romney, particularly since the contest is so far off. 'We need your help to make it a bigger margin,' he told the crowd of about 200. Then in Dayton he made a pocketbook appeal to hundreds of people who packed in, standing-room only, at a meeting hall. Noting that opponents had mocked him for proposing to colonize the moon, he suggested that his lunar gambit would be a lucrative shot in the arm for a region where aerospace remains a dominant industry."

RON PAUL'S MIXED NIGHT. Ron Paul posted his best numbers of his presidential bid Tuesday night in Minnesota despite coming in second, notes ABC's Jason Volack. He received 13,030 total votes - marking and increase of about 3,000 votes compared with his run four years ago. The Congressman managed to expand his base and place ahead of Mitt Romney.  He told an audience last night in Minnesota that "he knows what to do about getting delegates" and "when the dust settles" he will receive "the maximum number of delegates coming out of Minnesota." And although he came in third in Missouri's primary - there too he received more vote (and a larger percent of the vote) compared with four year ago. Only in Colorado did Paul slip. He finished the night dead last, receiving less votes than he did in 2008.  The next test for Paul is Maine. While his GOP rivals were campaigning in Florida - Paul was in the state and he remains to date the only presidential candidate this election cycle to visit there. During his Tuesday speech, Paul predicted that the results will be "very good" for him there.

ROMNEY'S RIVALS TAKE AIM AT HIS 'ASSAULT ON RELIGION' LINE. Mitt Romney's Republican rivals pounced yesterday on his accusations that President Obama has an "assault on religion" by forcing Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives and abortion services, suggesting it was a hypocritical statement, ABC's Emily Friedman notes. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum charged that Romney made the same demands on Catholic facilities when he was the governor of Massachusetts and implemented his health care plan. Romney kept up his attack on Obama's policies and Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul dismissed the remarks by Gingrich and Santorum. "We expect these attacks from President Obama and his liberal friends. But from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, it's a clear indication of desperation from their campaigns," said Saul.

ABC's Jake Tapper reported for "World News" on the contraception controversy. WATCH:

BEHIND OBAMA'S CONTRACEPTION DECISION. "President Barack Obama ended months of internal White House debate by siding with a group of mostly female advisers who urged him not to limit a health-care law mandate to provide contraceptives, even at the risk of alienating Catholic voters in November, people familiar with the discussions said," Bloomberg's Mike Dorning and Margaret Talev write. "Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic and a two-term governor of Kansas, was joined by several female Obama advisers in urging against a broad exemption for religious organizations. To do so would leave too many women without coverage and sap the enthusiasm for Obama among women's rights advocates, they said, according to the people, who spoke about the deliberations on condition of anonymity. Vice President Joe Biden and then-White House chief of staff Bill Daley, also Catholics, warned that the mandate would be seen as a government intrusion on religious institutions. Even moderate Catholic voters in battleground states might be alienated, they warned, according to the people familiar with the discussions."

LOS ANGELES MAYOR HAS HARSH WORDS FOR ROMNEY.  Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa Wednesday plans to rip Mitt Romney for the Republican candidate's immigration stance, ABC's Matthew Jaffe reports. "For the first time in modern memory, a major political party is poised to nominate a presidential candidate who has abandoned immigration reform and instead advocates self-deportation," Villaraigosa plans to say in a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in Washington, DC, Wednesday, according to excerpts. "We have a candidate who on Martin Luther King Day, a day celebrating racial reconciliation, had the architect of Arizona and Alabama's draconian anti-immigration laws campaign for him. Villaraigosa is receiving NALEO's Edward R. Roybal Award for Outstanding Public Service in Washington, DC. He will deliver the speech at 7:00 pm ET tonight.



@NKingofDC : Santorum beat Romney by 20 points in the Minn county where Tim Pawlenty has lived his entire life, and represented in the state House.

@LarrySabato : Wonder if Romney will study another weak frontrunner for tips. Some guy named Clinton in '92, ran against Mitt's choice, Tsonga


@FixRachel : Santorum on CNN: Romney "had a great career in the private sector, but we're not running for CEO of this country."

@murphymike : I have to recant all my tweets this week about AZ being huge battlefield. Santo says MI. I think AZ is slightly better terrain for him.

@Amy_Bingham : What ever happend to Obama Girl? Joe the Plumber? John Edwards' mistriss?



-Rick Santorum will take his campaign to Texas, with stops in McKinney, Allen and Plano

-Mitt Romney will hold an afternoon event with supporters in Atlanta, Georgia

-Newt Gingrich will tour and speak to employees at Jergens, Inc. in Cleveland, Ohio

-ABC's Joanna Suarez


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