WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Did you ever really think a Massachusetts Mormon was going to waltz his way to the Republican presidential nomination?
Rick Santorum's Tuesday trifecta reflects a central truth of the 2012 campaign. The most conservative voters will never love Mitt Romney, no matter what he says or does. They doubt his authenticity and wish they could vote for someone else.
Fortunately for Romney, he's running against maybe the weakest field in modern memory. Sorry, conservatives: Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and Marco Rubio aren't walking through that door. What you see is what you get.
The most relevant question now may be whether the brain trust at Romney Inc. can figure out a way to get a skeptical base fired up this fall. Reaching out to independent swing voters is important, but so is motivating the folks who make the phone calls, stuff the envelopes, hold the signs, and knock on doors.
Hint: Those aren't the business bigwigs mailing mega checks to Romney's super PAC.
Tuesday's results are "a red flag for Romney. He has not sealed the deal among (ordinary) conservatives, and he has to have a large conservative turnout to beat Obama" later this year, said Darrell West, a senior political analyst and vice president at Washington's Brookings Institute.
"Romney is not beloved by any segment of the Republican Party, but he remains, as he has from the outset, the only plausible nominee with a chance of beating Obama," added Thomas Mann, another veteran analyst from Brookings.
Sensing the possibility of a Tuesday setback, Romney's team did its best to lower expectations. Campaign Political Director Rich Beeson sent a memo to the political world declaring that "there is no way for any nominee to win first place in every single contest."
"John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents to notch a few wins too," he said.
Fair enough, though few analysts anticipated the magnitude of Tuesday's beat down. Santorum defeated Romney by about five points in Colorado, 28 points in Minnesota, and 30 points in Missouri. Noting you didn't put in a full effort only goes so far when you're running against a skeletal campaign like Santorum's.
And make no mistake: Romney cared about at least a couple of those states. His first stop after winning the Florida primary was Minnesota. He spent the last couple of days in Colorado. He won both states by overwhelming margins four years ago, when he was seen as the conservative alternative to McCain.
Romney's losses this time around means the GOP fight goes on. And that, in turn, means Romney can't yet do what he really wants to do: Turn his full attention to Obama.
"Romney wants all of his opponents marginalized so the campaign effectively ends early," Mann said. "Santorum's victory ensures his presence at least through Super Tuesday (on March 6), and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul will surely keep contesting the nomination."
It remains nearly impossible to envision a scenario under which Romney fails to eventually steamroll his way to the nomination. Santorum headed to Texas on Wednesday -- land of big GOP donors -- but his campaign is barely above water financially. Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul -- flawed candidates all -- will never be able to match Romney's infrastructure or bank account.
And Santorum gained minimal ground in the delegate race Tuesday night. Missouri's primary was nonbinding, and both the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses didn't officially award any delegates -- that will happen down the road at district and state conventions.
Looking ahead, Romney is certain to match his opponents' rhetorical red meat at the Conservative Political Action Conference later this week. His team is also ready to unleash its full financial arsenal in the run-up to the February 28 delegate-rich Arizona and Michigan primaries. If necessary, Romney's machine will tear down Santorum and Gingrich before both contests, much like it did to Gingrich in Iowa and Florida.
Another Romney edge: Arizona is home to a significant Mormon population, and Michigan offers virtual home state status.
Combine momentum from those states with campaign muscle on Super Tuesday, and Romney more likely than not will be off to the races in the delegate count in March. It takes 1,144 delegates to seal the deal. While Romney's team would have liked an early knockout, they planned for a long haul.
Santorum's Tuesday win could actually end up helping the former Massachusetts governor in one critical respect: It may prevent the anti-Romney conservatives from coalescing around Gingrich's candidacy.
"Romney's best strategy is divide and conquer," West noted.
One fear accompanying a long nasty fight, however, is how much scorched earth is ultimately left behind. Turnout is down in a number of GOP primary and caucus states this year compared to 2008 -- a dangerous sign for a party that will need enthusiasm and energy to oust Obama. Romney's unfavorable ratings have been rising among independents in some polls.
"I suspect (conservatives') hatred of President Obama and unwillingness to consider him legitimate will be sufficient to rally GOP turnout," Mann predicted. "The problem for Romney will be with the rest of the electorate, given his sharp right turn during the primaries."
Romney has "to rely on his financial and organizational resources to stagger to the (Republican) finish line, and then hope people hate Obama more than they hate" him, West said.
Can an unloved candidate win the White House in 2012? We may find out soon enough.