At the end of Tuesday's three state races, Rick Santorum was hoping to say, "Move over Newt Gingrich." Instead, after a three-state sweep, the former senator from Pennsylvania ended the night saying, "Move over Mitt Romney."
With victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, Santorum went undefeated Tuesday night, declaring himself to be the most viable challenger to Romney for the GOP presidential nomination. At least for this week.
"Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota," Santorum said to supporters in St. Charles, Mo., prior to adding Colorado to his victory column. "Tonight was a victory for the voices of our party, conservatives and the Tea Party."
It was one of the more surprising days in what has already been a volatile race.
Claiming 55 percent of the vote, Santorum pounded Romney in Missouri's primary by 30 percentage points, with Ron Paul finishing third with 12 percent of the vote.
With 93 percent of the precincts reporting in Minnesota, Santorum led with 45 percent of the vote. Ron Paul was in second at 27 percent, while Romney was a distant third at 17 percent in a state contest he won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2008.
In Colorado, Santorum took a narrower five-percentage-point victory over Romney (40 percent to 35 percent). But Romney won the state with more than 60 percent of the vote in 2008 and as recent as a few days ago was expected to win handily again this year.
Santorum's trifecta on the race's first multi-state day slowed Romney's hopes of taking control of the Republican Party's White House push. Continuing his free fall, Gingrich ran a distant third in Colorado, a distant fourth in Minnesota, and did not appear on the Missouri ballot.
Santorum's wins do not come with delegates. Minnesota and Colorado will apportion their delegates at future party meetings. Called a "beauty contest" by pundits, Missouri's primary was mostly symbolic. The state will hold a caucus to direct its delegates next month.
But more important than delegates, Tuesday's results send a clear signal that many conservatives are not comfortable with a Romney-led ticket. Facing momentum-halting defeats, Romney appeared at his Colorado campaign headquarters in Denver Tuesday night and tried to downplay the results.
"This was a good night for Rick Santorum," he said. "But I expect to become the nominee with your help. I look forward to the contests to come. We're going to take our message of liberty and prosperity to every corner of this country. We have a long way to go."
Sensing the coming Santorum surge earlier in the day, Romney's camp began appeals to social conservatives. So far this year, Romney has stuck to an economic heavy message. While he has attacked President Obama for burdening the nation's businesses with too many regulations, Romney has let Santorum and Gingrich battle it out for the religious vote.
But that changed earlier Tuesday when Romney included in his usual stump speech detailed attacks on Obama mandates, including a requirement that religious institutions provide contraception and abortion pills.
"Think what that does to people in faiths without sharing those views. This is a violation of conscience," Romney said to a gathering in Centennial, Colo. "We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right, a right to worship God, according to the dictates of our own conscience. We'll either have a government that protects religious diversity and freedom, or we'll have a government that tells us what kind of conscience they think we ought to have."
The former Massachusetts governor also assailed the Obama administration for arguing against religious freedom in a recent Supreme Court case.
"I'm just distressed as I watch our president try and infringe upon our rights," Romney said. "The First Amendment of the Constitution provides the right to worship in the way of our own choice. Did you understand that this administration argued before the Supreme Court that a church should not be able to determine who their ministers are but that government should decide who qualifies as a minister?"
Santorum and Gingrich, both Catholics, have long used such rhetoric on the campaign trail. Gingrich, who was largely silent on Tuesday night after a day spent campaigning in Ohio, frequently uses the phrase "war on religion" during his campaign speeches. On Tuesday afternoon, Gingrich added Romney to his religious hit list.
"There's been a lot of talk about the Obama administration's attack on the Catholic church," Gingrich said at a restaurant in Cincinnati. "Well, the fact is, Gov. Romney insisted that Catholic hospitals give out abortion pills, against their religious beliefs, when he was governor."
Romney, in 2005, required all Massachusetts hospitals, including Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Paul has largely stayed out of the religious rhetoric, sticking instead to his "cause of liberty" theme.
"We have permitted our government to undermine our liberty for safety and security," Paul said Tuesday night in Minnesota, where his runner-up finish was his best since coming in second behind Romney in New Hampshire. "You never have to sacrifice your liberty if you want to be safe."
But Tuesday was clearly Santorum's night. Just days ago he had claimed he wanted to "endanger" Gingrich. But during his victory speech Tuesday, Santorum looked past Gingrich and took aim at Romney … and then at Obama.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I don't stand here to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney," he said. "I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama."
The crowd erupted in cheers.