Rick Santorum Surges in Minnesota, Missouri

Santorum close to racking up more wins.

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It's another day of contests in the GOP presidential primary race, which means another day of surprises. And though former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seems to have firmly wrestled control of the front-runner mantle in the topsy-turvy race thanks to commanding recent wins in Florida and Nevada, a conservative rival appears poised to take two of the three states Tuesday.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the belatedly announced Iowa caucus victor, is leading in Missouri and Minnesota, according to recent polling. Romney has a comfortable lead in the final state, Colorado.

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In Missouri, Santorum leads with 45 percent support to Romney's 32 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul has 19 percent, according to a Public Policy Polling survey. A similar poll in Minnesota shows Santorum leading with 33 percent, Romney with 24 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 22 percent, and Paul with 20 percent.

"Santorum's personal popularity is the main reason for his sudden reemergence as a relevant player in the GOP race," said Tom Jensen, polling director at PPP, in a statement distributed with the results. He said Santorum's "favorable" were over 70 percent in all three states surveyed, whereas both Romney and Gingrich had net "unfavorables."

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Kyle Kondik, political analyst for Sabato's Crystal Ball and the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says Tuesday's contests might end up with a good result for Santorum, but will likely fail to knock Romney off his stride.

"Santorum will probably get some positive stories out of this and maybe he sort of takes Gingrich's place as the top competitor for Romney, but it's all good for Romney because if Gingrich and Santorum keep jostling for second place they aren't really advancing toward first place," he says.

As hinted at during a conference call Monday, Romney's campaign is planning to attack Santorum's support for earmarking while he was in Congress if he does emerge as a contender.

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"Santorum hasn't had to deal with really a media onslaught and advertising that Gingrich has had to from time to time, so I think that Romney is in a position where he can shoot down Santorum if Santorum starts to get hot," Kondrik says.

A further wrinkle in favor of Romney? In the real race for the GOP nomination, it's delegate counts that matter. None will be assigned to the winner of the Missouri contest, thanks to the fact that the primary's date violates Republican National Committee rules. Instead, those delegates will be determined by the results of a caucus held later in March. And in Minnesota, the delegates are assigned on a proportional basis, meaning a close contest there is essentially a wash.

Email: rmetzler@usnews.com

Twitter: @rebekahmetzler