DENVER (Reuters) - Republican U.S. presidential contender Rick Santorum claimed a surge of momentum and fundraising on Wednesday, a day after his shocking sweep of nominating contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri that dealt a blow to front-runner Mitt Romney.
Even though Romney holds strong advantages in financing and organization, his campaign will have to refocus to fight the challenge from Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania known for his socially conservative views.
“We definitely are the campaign with the momentum, the enthusiasm on the ground,” Santorum said on CNN.
For Romney, Tuesday’s results included losses in two states - Colorado and Minnesota - that he won in his unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. Minnesota also became the first state where Romney did not end up in first or second place.
The startling results raised fresh doubts about whether Romney, a wealthy former private equity executive and former Massachusetts governor, can extend his support from the party establishment to win over a broad swath of Republican voters.
Santorum has now finished first in four of the first eight primaries and caucuses, after his narrow victory over Romney in Iowa’s caucuses on January 3.
The former senator said his campaign was already bringing in more donations, an important consideration for a candidate who trails far behind Romney in the fund-raising race.
“We’re doing very, very well raising money. I think last night we raised a quarter of a million dollars online,” Santorum said.
Backed by a wealthy “Super PAC” that pays for attack advertising against rivals, Romney won three of the first five state-by-state contests to pick the Republican nominee to oppose Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
As he has before, Romney had seemed on track to win the nomination after big wins in Nevada and Florida last week. He had been expected to win easily in Colorado and did little campaigning in Minnesota and Missouri.
In Minnesota’s caucuses, Santorum won with 45 percent of the vote. But the state became the first this year in which Romney did not finish first or second. Congressman Ron Paul was in second place with 27 percent and Romney was third at 17 percent.
Santorum trounced Romney by 30 percentage points in Missouri, 55 percent to 25 percent. That vote was a non-binding primary, but has symbolic value as a measure of support in a big Midwestern state.
The race was closer in Colorado where Santorum won by 5 percentage points over Romney, 40 percent to 35 percent.
“This was a good night for Rick Santorum. I want to congratulate Senator Santorum and wish him the very best. We’ll keep on campaigning down the road, but I expect to become our nominee with your help,” Romney told supporters in Denver.
Romney, co-founder of the private equity firm Bain Capital, has made his business experience the centerpiece of his presidential campaign and presented himself as the candidate best equipped to right a still-struggling economy.
“Team Romney might need to tweak its strategy. So far they’ve been successful in going negative on their opponents and touting his business experience,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said. “But obviously Republican primary voters are hungry for something more. A lot of folks see him as a single-issue candidate right now.”
Santorum is a devout Roman Catholic known for religious conservative views such as strong opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage. He had been battling Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to become the conservative alternative to the more moderate Romney.
Gingrich, the front-runner as recently as January 21, when he won the South Carolina primary, is struggling. He was not on the ballot in Missouri and was crushed in the other two states.
Santorum’s rise showed the strength of the socially conservative wing of the Republican party, where many voters are wary of Romney because of his past moderate views on social issues, such as his support for abortion rights while running for office in Massachusetts, a predominantly Democratic state.
The issue came to the fore on Tuesday when a U.S. appeals court ruled that California’s ban on gay marriage violated the U.S. Constitution.
“We need someone who’s got a strong record to go up against President Obama on the biggest big government issues of the day,” Santorum said on MSNBC on Wednesday.
Some Christian conservatives are also wary of Romney because of his Mormon religion.
Santorum has rebuilt a political career left in tatters in 2006 when voters in Pennsylvania threw him out of the Senate by an 18-percentage point margin.
The Missouri primary is considered a “beauty contest” because the candidates do not win delegates who will take part in the August convention where the Republican presidential nominee will officially be chosen. Missouri Republicans will select convention delegates in caucuses on March 17.
The next major Republican nominating contests are the Arizona and Michigan primaries on February 28, while Maine wraps up its caucuses this Saturday.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday had Romney ahead in the race nationally with 29 percent, and showed Santorum’s support has gained by 5 percentage points in the last month, to 18 percent.
Additional reporting by John Whitesides,Bill Trott, Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Vicki Allen