To borrow a headline from Matt Drudge, former Gov. Mitt Romney got "Rick Roll[ed]" on Tuesday night, thanks to decisive victories by Rick Santorum in the Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado Republican presidential nominating contests.
Santorum's convincing hat trick does not automatically turn the former Pennsylvania Senator into a viable contender for the GOP nomination (at least not yet), but his strong victories expose the ongoing deficiencies in Team Romney's campaign strategy.
Team Romney was clearly counting on a strong showing in February and then rolling into Super Tuesday as the presumptive nominee, giving the campaign a strong wind at its back to close out the nominating contest by mid-Spring.
Having beaten down former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's resurgent campaign in Florida, Team Romney didn't count on conservatives consolidating behind another candidate in an effort to thwart that narrative for a second time.
Romney's strategy of going negative on his primary opponents while touting his extensive business experience might have worked if both the economy and Romney's opponents kept collapsing. Both have proven to be more resilient of late, and Team Romney still has yet to figure out how to successfully win over both establishment Republicans and conservatives with a conviction that he can successfully take the fight to President Obama in the fall.
The rest of the February calendar would appear to favor the Romney campaign, with contests in Arizona and Michigan, both perceived to be Romney strongholds. However, as political prognosticator Nate Silver rightly notes, "Mr. Romney is not a strong enough candidate that he can afford more nights as bad as Tuesday." With just two contests, either Santorum or Gingrich could again come up with the right tactics to keep either race competitive.
Team Romney will now punt and play defense by turning its focus to exposing Santorum's flaws while keeping one watchful eye of disdain on Gingrich, but that alone will not be enough to win the nomination in a timely manner.
I have said it before, and I will say it again, Romney is dearly in need of a "big idea" to help generate passion so that Republican primary voters en masse will back his candidacy. Team Romney needs to go back to the drawing board and give conservatives a better reason to vote for him because, trust me, slogans like "Believe In America" and off-key renditions of "America The Beautiful" just won't cut it.
That idea can focus on revamping the tax code, how to better deal with our nation's debt problem, or the need for energy security in America. It really doesn't matter which one Romney chooses to go with, he just needs one that will resonate with conservatives (and possibly even independents) so that they will pull the lever in his favor.
Romney is still the candidate most likely to win the Republican presidential nomination, but the clock is ticking.