Santorum: GOP Race Now in ‘No Man’s Land’

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ST. CHARLES, Missouri (By Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer) — As he was handily winning three Republican contests and stalling frontrunner Mitt Romney’s clear path to the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Santorum proclaimed to CNN that the 2012 GOP race was now “in a little bit of no man’s land.”

The former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign got a massive dose of momentum after stunning frontrunner Mitt Romney with a clean sweep on Tuesday night, beating him by double digits in Minnesota, a state Romney won in 2008, stunning him in Colorado, another state in Romney’s column in 2008, and trouncing him in Missouri, one of the country’s biggest battleground states.

“I don’t stand here to claim to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” Santorum told suporters in a convention hall just west of St. Louis. “I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama.”

The crowd erupted in cheers, chanting “We pick Rick! We pick Rick!”

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Never mind that Tuesday night’s win in Missouri won’t actually rack up any delegates for Santorum.

The state’s 52 delegates will be awarded when GOP caucuses are held in mid-March. But he touted the win as proof that his message is gaining traction even without the campaign checkbook or ground operation that Romney has.

“Tonight we had an opportunity to see what a campaign looks like when one candidate isn’t outspent 5- or 10-to-1 by negative ads, impugning their integrity and distorting the record,” Santorum said, standing with his wife. “This is a more accurate representation frankly of what the fall race would look like.”

Even before the results started coming in Tuesday evening, Santorum’s advisers were setting expectations high on the first multi-state polling day of the year.

Santorum advisers told CNN that website traffic was up over the past few days, saying it was “going through the roof.”

Although they didn’t have any of their own polling showing they were gaining support in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, the campaign pointed out that crowds were getting bigger at their stops and the anecdotal evidence gave them a good feeling going into Tuesday’s vote.

The Romney campaign emphasized Missouri’s primary wasn’t a true test because delegates weren’t officially awarded.

“Part of the process. No delegates,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul told CNN after Missouri was called for Santorum.

But Santorum aides call that argument “laughable” and pointed to Romney’s major focus on the Iowa caucuses, another state where delegates won’t be awarded until months after the vote.

One Santorum adviser told CNN that the strong showing this month will be a springboard for Santorum heading into Super Tuesday to solidify him — not Gingrich — as the alternative to Romney, who has not been able to bring the conservative base into his camp.

“February is about perception and momentum leading into Super Tuesday,” the adviser said.

The Santorum campaign believes that Tuesday’s strong showing will be a huge boost to its fund-raising efforts, even scheduling its next stop in Texas.

“That’s where the money is,” an adviser said.

— CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash contributed to this story.

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