Rick Santorum, as I write this, is celebrating victory in Missouri. There are those who scoff and say it's silly and premature, especially since the Missouri primary election is non-binding. But he isn't just celebrating over Missouri. Though his victory party is in St. Charles, MO, just an hour from where I currently sit, he is watching the polls carefully in two other states. Two other states that, if early numbers prove accurate, are likely to give Santorum the biggest night of the campaign thus far. With 18% reporting in Minnesota, Santorum leads his closest competitor, Ron Paul, 43%-27%. In Colorado only 7% has reported in, but there Santorum leads Gingrich 49%-21%.
Even though Missouri's primary is not binding, when combined with the other two primaries that are running concurrently, it does mean something. First, it gives a preview of what the binding Missouri Caucus (happening in March) might look like. And second, it gives a clear view of a strong GOP candidate who isn't Mitt Romney. In all three states, Santorum leads Romney by healthy double digits - and more than double his votes.
What does this mean for Republicans? Many have said that the 2012 general election will be a referendum on President Obama and his policies. It is becoming abundantly clear that the GOP primary is a referendum on what does and does not constitute conservatism. What remains to be seen is whether or not conservatism will emerge as the new voice of the (grand) old party.