Could this be Santorum's big day?

Today, for the first time this cycle, multiple states hold their Republican presidential nomination contests on one day, two caucuses (Colorado and Minnesota) and one primary (Missouri).  They all have two things in common.  First, none of them are binding, so no delegates will be formally assigned from the vote.  Second, they all represent Rick Santorum’s best shot at changing the trajectory of this race and positioning himself as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.  One final series of snap polls from PPP shows Santorum with a double-digit lead in Missouri, and nearly as much of a lead in Minnesota:

Rick Santorum could be headed for a big day in today’s contests in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Missouri looks like a probable win for Santorum. He’s at 45% there to 32% for Mitt Romney and 19% for Paul. Minnesota provides an opportunity for a win as well. Currently he has a small advantage with 33% to 24% for Romney, 22% for Newt Gingrich, and 20% for Ron Paul. And Santorum should get a second place finish in Colorado, where Romney appears to be the likely winner. The standings there are Romney at 37%, Santorum at 27%, Gingrich at 21%, and Paul at 13%.

Missouri is the big test.  Gingrich chose not to make the ballot in Missouri (a more deliberate choice than the failure of Gingrich and Santorum in Virginia), so this is the dry run of Santorum vs Romney and Paul.  If he does win big in the Show Me State, it gives Santorum an argument for his strength as a conservative candidate more likely to beat Romney in future contests than Gingrich.  A win in Minnesota, where Romney won in 2008, would bolster that argument even more, but a low turnout is expected in Minnesota.  That makes predictions through polling difficult, although a nine-point lead in a widely-split field is better than no lead at all.

For Gingrich, the key is to beat Santorum in the two states in which he’s competing.  The results in Missouri are not terribly relevant to Gingrich, and expect his campaign to spin a Santorum win as an indictment of Romney rather than a boost for Santorum, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong, either.  Falling to third in either would raise questions about his momentum; falling out of second place in both would be a huge problem for perception of the Gingrich campaign.  In Minnesota, Gingrich is in a virtual tie for second place with Romney and Ron Paul, with just four points separating the three candidates.  In Colorado, Gingrich is six points back of Santorum for second place in the PPP poll, but leads slightly as the second-place choice over Santorum, 25/23.

Gingrich could score a big PR coup by pushing Romney into third place in Minnesota, or he could end up in third or even fourth place himself.  He’s also tied for second in the second-place choice question with Romney at 20% in Minnesota, with Santorum leading with 25% and Paul far behind at 10%.  Based on those numbers, it looks like Santorum has a chance to win it, and Romney and Gingrich will be fighting it out for second place.  In that case, look for the better organization to carry the day, and that won’t be good news for Gingrich.  In Colorado, there is no chance of pushing Romney into third place, but Gingrich could beat Santorum for second.  He has a slight edge in electability over Santorum in both states (+7 in CO, +6 in MN), and in Colorado that might be enough to get last-minute deciders to break his way and push him into second.

On the other hand, last-minute deciders might base their decision on instinct rather than stats, and that would not be good news for Gingrich.  In both states, Gingrich is barely above water on favorability (+8 in CO, +7 in MN), though, while Santorum leads the field substantially (+52 in CO, +57 in MN), with Romney in second (+28 in CO, +7 in MN, tied with Gingrich).  That combined with the other disadvantages of the Gingrich campaign, plus the interesting strategic decision over the last two days to focus on Santorum, may have undercut Gingrich’s stature enough to send him into an across-the-board retreat.  If so, Gingrich had either hope for a miracle in the February 22nd debate.  If Santorum comes in third in both Minnesota and Colorado while winning Missouri, it won’t be as dire, but he would lose the argument over his ability to outperform Gingrich in the center of the country, and the Not-Romney stalemate would continue.  And you know who that helps ….