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Tuesday's GOP Contests Set Romney's Campaign Back


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

For former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney it went from being a bad night to a very bad night. He was widely expected to win yesterday's caucuses in Colorado and instead lost to Rick Santorum, who also won in Minnesota and Missouri.

It's worth noting, none of these contests award delegates. But for a candidate who was trying to build an air of inevitability, last night was a setback. NPR's Tamara Keith is traveling with the Romney campaign and has this report.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There's no buzz kill at a caucus night party quite like unwelcome news.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Rick Santorum is on his way to a big victory in the caucuses. There you see his big lead over Ron Paul.

KEITH: As Romney supporters streamed into the student center at the University of Colorado, Denver, Fox News blared from the PA system.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Missouri, Rick Santorum a huge winner, 30 points over Mitt Romney in this non-binding primary. Newt Gingrich was not on the ballot there. And as you look at Colorado, it's very early in the caucuses out there. Rick Santorum with a lead out there...

KEITH: It's a big shift from four years ago when Romney dominated the caucuses here, hauling in 60 percent of the vote. This time, he got just under 35 percent of the vote and lost to Rick Santorum by a 5 point margin. Romney took the stage in a less than packed room to give a speech where he sounded a bit like a CEO on an earnings call announcing that profits didn't quite hit the mark.

MITT ROMNEY: I look forward to the contest to come. But we're going to take our message of liberty and prosperity to every corner of the country.

KEITH: And in a preview of what an advisor says will be more to come, Romney attacked his opponents on their work experience.

ROMNEY: Washington cannot reform itself. And Washington will never be reformed by those who've been compromised by the culture of Washington. This is a clear choice. I'm the only person in this race, Republican or Democrat, who has never served a day of time in Washington.

KEITH: All day, Romney's campaign team had been trying to downplay the importance of Tuesday's contests. Last night, an advisor said the focus was on racking up delegates, and there were no delegates on the line in Colorado, Minnesota or Missouri.

In a memo, the campaign's political director argued Romney is still the only candidate with the resources to run a national campaign in all of the upcoming states. And he pointed out that John McCain lost 19 states four years ago on his way to the nomination.

Romney supporter William Adaska came up with his own spin.

WILLIAM ADASKA: I think it's good that people get beat on, OK. Romney is definitely being beat on by everybody - Republicans, Democrats, a bunch of newscasters and all. They try to put holes in him. But that which does not kill you makes you stronger.

KEITH: Watching the returns on a TV nearby, Andrew Hawley put it another way.

ANDREW HAWLEY: I think it's good that it's going to make it a longer race. I think it's going toughen him, toughen his hide up a little bit. And he's going to need it when he goes against Obama.

KEITH: At a caucus in Centennial Colorado, Jeff Clark came out to support Romney, though he also said he still wished there were some other candidates in the race. But, given his options, Clark says he's with Romney.

JEFF CLARK: I could support all three of them and I would support. But I don't think there's any danger of him losing the momentum, quite frankly. I think he's got the organization and he's prepared.

KEITH: It's a message Romney's campaign hopes can carry him all the way to the nomination, even if he has to get past more nights as bad as this one.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.