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Tuesday contests about bragging rights and momentum
By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Political Editor
updated 7:55 AM EST, Tue February 7, 2012
- Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri hold nominating contests Tuesday
- The delegate total in the three states is biggest so far of campaign
- Rick Santorum has opportunity to change narrative with win in Missouri
(CNN) -- Seventy delegates and a whole lot of momentum: That's what's at stake Tuesday when three states hold contests in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
It's the first day so far this cycle with multiple contests and with a total of 70 delegates up for grabs in caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota, it's the largest haul yet in the race for the White House. While the two states won't officially award delegates Tuesday night (that will happen down the road at district and state conventions), the news media, including CNN, will use them to make unofficial delegate count estimates.
Coming just days after big victories in Florida and Nevada for Mitt Romney, the two caucuses and a nonbinding primary in Missouri, where Newt Gingrich isn't on the ballot, offer Rick Santorum and Ron Paul opportunities to win delegates and grab some momentum.
For Romney, who's making his second bid for the GOP nomination, a sweep of the three contests would make the former Massachusetts governor's bid for the nomination seem even more unstoppable than it already feels to many.
Romney's campaign appears to see its best chance of victory in Colorado. He canceled stops in Minnesota scheduled for Monday to concentrate on Colorado, where he'll spend caucus night. Romney, who won big in the state's 2008 caucuses, has been working Colorado since last summer and arguably has the strongest structure in the state.
Tuesday could give Santorum's long-shot campaign something to brag about.
"We look at tomorrow as an important step to show we are the strongest alternative to Mitt Romney," said Santorum senior adviser John Brabender.
That might be one reason why the Romney campaign appeared to step up its attacks on Santorum on Monday. But the former senator from Pennsylvania fired back, slamming Romney's stance on health care and his record in Massachusetts.
"He's not running as governor of Massachusetts. He's running as a CEO. That may tell you something about his public record and his inability to make the case to conservatives in this party that he's the person to choose," Santorum told reporters after a rally in Rochester, Minnesota.
Santorum campaigned in all three states over the past week. While he could do well in Colorado, where evangelicals are a big factor, and Minnesota, where social conservatives are also influential, he hopes Missouri could provide him with his second victory this year.
Social conservatives are also influential in Missouri, and more importantly, Gingrich isn't on the ballot there. Those are two reasons why Santorum will spend Tuesday night there. Romney hasn't campaigned in Missouri since the start of the primaries and caucuses, which has led some to speculate that he might be taking a pass in the state.
"It would not surprise me to learn that inside the Romney tent they have decided it is best for them for Santorum to win one state tomorrow and, because there are no delegates at stake -- only bragging rights -- the best state would be Missouri," said GOP political strategist Rich Galen, who ran Gingrich's press operation when he was speaker of the House and advised Fred Thompson's 2008 Republican presidential bid but is not taking sides this cycle.
Paul spent the past week stumping in both caucus states and will spend Tuesday night in Minnesota. But he also has a strong grassroots network in Colorado. He hopes to add to his delegate haul on Tuesday.
"It sounds to me like the cause of liberty is alive and well in Minnesota," the longtime Texas congressman, who is making his third run for the White House, said at a rally in Minneapolis on Monday night.
The three states could be unkind to Gingrich. He's playing catch-up after getting a late start in Colorado and Minnesota and failing to get on the ballot in Missouri. Gingrich is looking ahead to Super Tuesday on March 6 in what he hopes will be friendlier territory. As a sign of that, Gingrich will spend Tuesday night in Ohio, one of the Super Tuesday states.
Gingrich is trying to fend off Santorum's attempts to become the conservative alternative to Romney. Tuesday's contests could spell trouble if Santorum has a good night.
"It would make Santorum's argument that he deserves a second look before Newt gets a third look and make Newt have to answer questions about Santorum, not Romney," Galen said.
While all three states could provide plenty of drama, one Republican strategist said the contests most likely won't have a major impact on the battle for the nomination.
"It's doubtful Tuesday's results will alter the race in any significant way, especially given that Missouri is nonbinding and doesn't include Gingrich," said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and Republican National Committee communications director.
The three states will be influential in the general election: Colorado and Missouri are battleground states and Minnesota could also be contested.
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CNN Political Reporter Peter Hamby contributed to this report.