DENVER — On Friday and Saturday, Colorado was hit by a snowstorm that dumped 20 inches on parts of this mile-high city. On Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, Rick Santorum took the state by storm. Republican frontrunner — former frontrunner? — Mitt Romney will be digging out for weeks.
Welcome to the 2012 GOP presidential contest, where the field is open, the competition is fierce, and the future is uncertain.
Santorum swept caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and a primary in Missouri (though no delegates were at stake in the latter) yesterday. In 2008, Romney won both of the caucuses by wide margins, by 19 points in Minnesota and by 42 — six touchdowns — in Colorado. This time he lost Minnesota by 28 and Colorado by 5 to Santorum.
We beat the New York Times and nearly every media outlet in America in reporting it. Just saying.
Next up for the GOP primary is Maine, which is caucusing this entire week (yes, all week), with results completed on Saturday. Then the campaign takes its longest hiatus: there are no more votes until Feb. 28, with primaries in Michigan and Arizona.
Then it’s the Washington caucuses on March 3.
If the weeks to come are anything like the days and nights we experienced here, we have two words for Washingtonians: buckle up.
The UW Election Eye team buckled our Alaska Air seat belts and flew into Colorado in two waves: Will Mari and Jason Gilmore arrived from Seattle on Saturday, and the Las Vegas team touched down on the tarmac Sunday morning.
We intentionally decided to establish ourselves an hour south of Denver in Colorado Springs, home to the global Christian ministry Focus on the Family and a sizable swath of socially conservative voters. We had a hunch Colorado could be an opportunity for Santorum and we wanted to take the temperature of a part of the state that could help deliver him a victory.
Sometimes, you go with your gut instinct.
Sunday was a day of worship: at the houses of Pastor Ted Haggard and Woodmen Valley Chapel as well as at the holy NBC altar of the NFL Super Bowl. Little did we know that two days later, the Colorado caucuses would mimic the Giants vs. Patriots battle: a close race with an underdog upset.
On Monday the UW Election Eye team headed out around Colorado Springs, with Ilona Idlis and Will Mari visiting Focus on the Family and the Colorado Springs Pregnancy Center. Liz Hunter and Jason Gilmore pointed their rental car due south to Pueblo, a town recently hit hard by the recession. There they spoke with locals who have little love for “ruling class Republicans,” and instead prefer candidates like Ron Paul or Santorum.
Hmmm, you don’t say?
That evening, Corey Christiansen, David Domke, and Lindsey Meeks made the long round-trip commute to Denver up Highway 25-N to catch an evening Santorum rally. They were rewarded with brownies, offered to them by none other than Santorum’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, 20, and eldest son John, 19, as well as a brief Q & A with Santorum himself. A short video of the rally is here:
Tuesday in Colorado Springs dawned cold and bright, with a dusting of snow.
Before heading to Manitou Springs for lunch, members of the UW Election Eye team visited a morning Santorum rally at Guiseppe’s Depot Restaurant, in the heart of Colorado Springs. Unlike Mitt Romney, who thanks in part to his relatively new Secret Service detail is arriving to events in caravans of dark-tinted glass vehicles, Santorum left in the cab of a white pick up truck, as if he was being picked up by friends.
Liz Hunter, Will Mari, and A.V. Crofts then spoke live on-air for 94.9 FM Weekday with Steve Scher, where talk inevitably turned to Santorum, given all the UW Election Eye team had observed. “It’s a heart and the head problem,” said Mari. “A lot of folks are saying, ‘We like the guy a lot, Rick Santorum, but we’re not sure he if can win.’ But I’m getting a sense they’re going to vote for him anyway.”
There it was again: that sense of a Santorum surge.
All Colorado precincts caucus at 7 PM, and the UW Election Eye team fanned out from Colorado Springs up to Denver. In gatherings ranging from 16 to over 500, we watched the political process unfold. By the time 8 PM rolled around, Santorum was already showing a strong finish in Missouri that many predicted would be a win.
The UW Election Eye team reconvened at the Colorado State GOP headquarters in the city of Greenwood Village just south of Denver. As results poured in from Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, the Colorado GOP Chairman, Ryan Call, kept us all updated. Within minutes of arrival, we learned Santorum had been declared a winner in Missouri. Not long thereafter, it was confirmed Santorum was the projected winner in Minnesota.
Could he sweep?
The room was electric as vote totals were being counted and fed to the press. We had our ear on every conversation, our cameras focused, our phones, tablets, and laptops ready for our fingers. Just before 10 pm we heard officials preparing to announce Santorum as the victor. We tweeted it at 9:58 pm, just moments before election guru Nate Silver of the New York Times tweeted it and others followed. Not that we noticed that we were FIRST.
So when will Washingtonians get to see this underdog turned winning streak?
Well, over brownies Monday evening at the Denver rally, Santorum’s campaign manager shared with the UW Election Eye team that Santorum is due to visit Washington State this coming Monday. Schedules can shift on a dime, we well know.
But the 2012 Republican presidential race is coming to town, sweater vests, Secret Service and all.