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Santorum Wins Mean Trouble for Romney

Mitt Romney may well emerge from Super Tuesday with an enlarged delegate lead as well as the biggest prize if he holds onto his slim lead in Ohio. But the evening will be no blowout for the frontrunner. With Rick Santorum winning in Tennessee and Oklahoma and Newt Gingrich taking his home state of Georgia, there’s no doubt the race will go on for some time, with both conservative underdogs continuing to drain Romney’s resources and undermine his chances of uniting his party.

No matter what would have happened tonight, it’s doubtful that either Santorum or Gingrich would have dropped out. Yet, by preventing Romney from sweeping the map, the pair has ensured the outcome of the GOP contest is, if not exactly in doubt, still to be determined. The only unalloyed good news for Romney is that the victory of a bitter and resentful Gingrich in Georgia guarantees he will continue to benefit from a split conservative field.

Romney will rightly claim any result that leaves him much closer to the delegate count he needs to be the nominee is a big win. And if he can combine that with taking Ohio — an outcome that is still very much in doubt at the moment — it will be reasonable for him to spin Super Tuesday as a triumph for his candidacy. However, Santorum’s victories in Tennessee and Oklahoma not only will pump new life into the Pennsylvanian’s campaign, the results also reinforce Romney’s problems with conservatives. Rather than spending tomorrow talking about Romney’s inevitability, the discussion may be more about his continued difficulty in closing the deal with his own party’s base.

Unless either Gingrich or Santorum drops out — something that is highly unlikely — Romney is the inevitable GOP winner. Gingrich’s continued presence in the race all but guarantees that Santorum will never be able to get the one-on-one matchup with Romney that he thinks will bring him victory. But Santorum’s ability to beat him in two states despite a fundraising disadvantage and spending much of the last few weeks on the defensive about his views on social issues illustrates the frontrunner’s weakness. Combined with the likelihood that a nasty and expensive race will continue for weeks if not months deeper into the spring, that’s not a hopeful sign for Republicans. At a time when some slight improvement in the economy has put some wind in Barack Obama’s sails, the ongoing slugfest in which Romney remains the piñata of the right can only make it harder for him to eventually prevail in the fall.