The Romney campaign's broadening of its attack this week to include Rick Santorum reflects some of the uncertainty surrounding votes Tuesday in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri -- the first multi-state election day of the campaign.
In the trio of low-turnout races where the electorate is expected to be more conservative, the former Pennsylvania senator may well have his best night of the GOP race since a surprise dead-even finish with Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses, which ultimately proved to be a narrow win.
In a memo to reporters Tuesday morning, the Romney campaign downplayed expectations about Tuesday's votes.
"As our campaign has said from the outset, Mitt Romney is not going to win every contest. John McCain lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents will notch a few wins, too," political director Rich Beeson wrote. "But unlike the other candidates, our campaign has the resources and organization to keep winning over the long run. ... Even 'success' in a few states will not mean collecting enough delegates to win the nomination."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who endorsed Romney after ending his own campaign for the GOP nomination, would not offer even an optimistic prediction about his candidate's chances in his home state.
"It's a relatively small turnout and the caucus attendees here tend to gravitate toward the most conservative candidate or the perceived conservative candidate," he told reporters Monday on a conference call organized to attack Santorum on the issue of earmarks. "I anticipate Rick Santorum, [Newt] Gingrich and Mitt will do well, and it will be very competitive. Between those three it will be packed together."
When Gingrich enjoyed a second resurgence in the GOP race last month, leading up to a victory in the South Carolina primary, the Romney war room unleashed surrogates to attack the former House speaker as an "unreliable leader," and made him the focus of their paid advertising.
The new attention being paid to Santorum suggests they see him emerging as a potential threat in caucuses both in Minnesota and Colorado. He's certainly a bigger factor in Missouri's primary, where Gingrich is not even on the ballot; he's holding an event in the Show-Me State after the polls close Tuesday night.
"It looks like [Santorum is] doing a little better in these caucus states," Pawlenty said. "He's a credible candidate and deserves to be right in the middle of the back and forth between the campaigns."
None of the contests Tuesday will immediately award delegates to the national convention. But the candidates have all campaigned in some or all of the states in the last week. For Santorum, in particular, a strong performance -- and even an outright victory in one or more contests -- could give him a rationale for staying in the campaign heading into a three-week lull in the nominating calendar.
The next delegates will be awarded based on primaries Feb. 28 in Michigan and Arizona. Super Tuesday, with voting in 10 states, follows a week later.
Gingrich will spend Tuesday night in one of those states, Ohio, which has one of the most significant delegate slates. Romney will be in Denver, and Ron Paul in Minnesota.
After nominating contests in five states, the Republican National Committee said Monday that Romney lead the GOP field with 73 delegates. Gingrich has won 29, Paul 8, Santorum 3, and 30 are unbound.