Remember the second Florida GOP debate on Thursday night, January 26, in Jacksonville? Mitt Romney came out pummeling Newt Gingrich, Gingrich was ineffectual in response, and Romney sailed on to a decisive victory five days later in Florida. This was soon followed by Romney's easy triumph in Nevada last Saturday. The Romney inevitabilists were once again out in force.
And once again they were premature. Or perhaps even wrong? Could it be that the most significant feature of the Jacksonville debate will turn out not to have been Romney's thumping of Gingrich early on, but the exchange late in the debate between Rick Santorum and Romney on health care? Santorum effectively prosecuted the case against Romneycare that night, and he's kept at it aggressively ever since, arguing that Romneycare disables Romney from prosecuting the crucial case against Obamacare.
Santorum has now won landslide victories in Missouri and Minnesota. It's true no delegates were at stake in Missouri—but it's also true that about 240,000 people cast ballots there. And now, though Romney of course remains ahead in delegates and in total votes, and Gingrich and Paul will continue to fight, we have a situation where Santorum has won in three states, Romney in three, and Gingrich in one (I'm writing before the results in Colorado are known).
So Santorum has a chance. He's run an impressive campaign, but he’d better be wearing armor and kevlar tomorrow morning, when the Romney team unleashes all of its negative artillery against him. But what can Romney dwell on that would damage Santorum as much as Romneycare harms Romney? When Santorum was assailing Romney on health care in Jacksonville, Romney told Santorum, "It's not worth getting angry about." Well, the voters in Missouri and Minnesota may not have been angry, but something about Mitt Romney concerned them. I suspect at the heart of their concern was Romneycare. And I suspect it's worth Mitt Romney getting worried about.
UPDATE: Santorum completed a sweep by winning Colorado. So he's now won contests in four states, compared to Romney's three, and Gingrich's one. His margins of victory (over Romney) last night were an impressive 30 percent in Missouri, 28 percent in Minnesota, and 5 percent in Colorado.