02:49 - Source: CNN
How Santorum's big night unfolded

Story highlights

Santorum wins Colorado, along with victories in Missouri and Minnesota

Mitt Romney stresses party unity in congratulating Santorum

"Conservatism is alive and well," Santorum tells supporters

The delegate total of 70 in Colorado and Minnesota is the biggest so far of campaign

(CNN) —  

Rick Santorum awoke to a new reality Wednesday after sweeping all three Republican presidential contests a day earlier, reshaping the contest that will decide who runs against President Barack Obama in November.

Santorum won caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, as well as a nonbinding primary in Missouri to energize his campaign and raise questions about front-runner Mitt Romney’s ability to attract broad conservative support.

The victories by Santorum bolstered his contention that he is the strongest conservative challenger to the more moderate Romney for the GOP nomination, and the most formidable conservative candidate to take on Obama.

“I don’t stand here and claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” Santorum declared to cheering supporters outside St. Louis. “I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

Colorado was the most competitive state of the day, with Santorum winning 40% of the vote to 35% for Romney, 13% for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and 12% for Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

After a night of returns trickling in and the lead shifting between Santorum and Romney, Colorado Republican Party chairman Ryan Call announced live on CNN that Santorum was the winner.

In Minnesota, Santorum got 45% of the vote to 27% for Paul, 17% for Romney and 11% for Gingrich, with 88% of the total counted, according to the secretary of state.

The victory in a state Romney won in his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid was a strong statement by Santorum that he represents a major conservative challenge to both Romney and Gingrich.

However, a low turnout in all three races signaled possible dissatisfaction among Republican voters with the candidates.

All the 70 delegates available Tuesday came from the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses, while the Missouri primary was nonbinding with no delegates at stake.

The two caucus states didn’t officially award delegates Tuesday night – that will happen down the road at district and state conventions – but the news media, including CNN, will use them to make unofficial delegate count estimates.

With 100% of the Missouri vote counted, Santorum had 55% to 25% for Romney and 12% for Paul, according to unofficial results. Gingrich didn’t make the ballot in Missouri.

Such a dominating victory by the conservative Santorum showed his appeal to Missouri’s large blocs of evangelical and tea party supporters.

“Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota,” Santorum declared before the Colorado count had been completed.

While Tuesday was a stunningly successful night for Santorum, it was a terrible night for Romney and Gingrich, who has been competing with Santorum for the support of conservatives against the more moderate Romney.

Gingrich spent little time or money in the three states, instead focusing his now limping campaign on the Super Tuesday contests of March 6 that will be worth more than 400 delegates from 10 states.

Romney, however, campaigned hard in Colorado and to a lesser degree Minnesota, and the stinging losses cost him any momentum from his two straight victories in Florida and Nevada prior to Tuesday.

A senior adviser to Romney signaled the campaign would take a tougher approach toward his resurgent rival and portray him as a Washington insider.

“Look, I just don’t think it’s a time when people are looking to Washington to solve problems with Washington,” senior Romney adviser Stuart Stevens said of Santorum, a former U.S. senator.

Stevens downplayed Tuesday’s results, saying: “We’d like to win everywhere, but you can’t. And we’ve focused on key states for how we see a path to the nomination.”

In Denver, Romney congratulated Santorum for his good night before the Colorado result was known. Rather than continuing criticism of Santorum, Romney sounded conciliatory in saying Republicans would unite behind the eventual nominee and that he expected to be that candidate.

Perhaps in response to Santorum’s success, Romney struck a populist note by telling the crowd how his father never graduated college but went on to head a business and become governor of Michigan.

“For my dad, this was the land of opportunity,” Romney said, later adding: “I refuse to believe America is just another place on earth with a map. We stand for freedom and hope and opportunity.”

To Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair from Florida, Tuesday’s results showed an underlying weakness in Romney’s candidacy.

“What should have been a night where he began to consolidate Republican support instead has shown that Republicans are reluctant to get behind him,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “Republicans are giving the field of candidates another look, demonstrating that the more people get to know Mitt Romney, the less they like him. They know he’ll say anything to get elected, and they don’t want a candidate they can’t trust.”

She also cited “the lack of enthusiasm and low turnout we’re seeing in these contests,” adding that “no candidate embodies that dissatisfaction more than Mitt Romney.”

In Missouri, a state official told CNN that the turnout would be “significantly lower than predicted.” The secretary of state’s office had estimated turnout would be 23%.

Romney’s campaign appeared to consider Colorado its best chance of victory Tuesday. He canceled stops in Minnesota scheduled for Monday to concentrate on Colorado, where he spent 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.

Santorum needed victories or an overall strong showing to prove the viability of his campaign.

“I think we need to win in the sense that we need to perform very well,” he told CNN’s John King earlier Tuesday.

Paul, meanwhile, predicted his focus on the caucus states would yield results. He spent the past week stumping in Colorado and Minnesota, and spent Tuesday night in Minnesota.

“We’re gonna win some delegates. Whether we come in one or two or three, I don’t know exactly that,” Paul said on CNN’s “John King USA.” “But we feel positive about moving along and picking up more delegates. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Paul stressed his strength in the upcoming Maine caucuses on Saturday.