At a glance, Rick Santorum's presidential campaign might have seemed dead after his last-place finish in the Nevada caucuses, his fourth poor showing in a row. But he is polling very well in the three states that vote today -- and as improbable as it may sound, if he beats Newt Gingrich in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, he could become the latest, and probably last, anti-Romney candidate.

No delegates will be awarded today, but the caucuses mean a lot in terms of positioning for Super Tuesday, on March 6. Strong performances in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri would quash the story line that Santorum is out of the race, and if he went on to do well in Maine, Michigan and/or Arizona later this month, he would be poised to go head-to-head with Romney in nine of the 10 states that vote on Super Tuesday.

Those states are Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Vermont. (Santorum is not on the ballot in Virginia because, like Gingrich, he did not submit the required number of signatures.) Together, the nine states account for 388 delegates -- a fraction of the 1,144 required to secure the nomination, but more than twice the 143 that have been awarded so far.

If all goes according to plan, Santorum could pull almost even with Romney in the delegate count by March 7. But that's, well, if all goes according to plan. 

Bumps in the Road

It would be foolish not to note that Santorum, just as he said of Gingrich, has already had his shot. His come-from-behind victory in Iowa brought him a slew of media attention and a boost in the polls elsewhere -- but with minimal campaign organization in any of the other early states, Santorum wasn't able to translate that win into real momentum.

His organization is better now, but not by much. He's still running on a shoestring budget compared to Romney and Gingrich, and he didn't even open an office in Nevada until less than a week before the caucuses there. He is good at grassroots campaigning when he focuses on one or two states at a time -- e.g., Colorado and Minnesota -- but as the primary season kicks into full gear and we have dozens of primaries and caucuses clustered together, he will need a viable national strategy.

He approached Iowa as if he were running for governor, said Ted Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, referring to the intense, extended campaign that took Santorum to all 99 counties of Iowa.

That pounding-the-pavement strategy paid off when he surged from last to first place in the final days before the caucuses, but his lack of organization in other states has left him playing catch-up ever since, and that raises real questions about his ability to seize the opportunity Gingrich's stumbles have afforded him.

Conservatives Still Split

But his biggest problem will probably be the one that has dogged anti-Romney candidates since last spring: the split conservative vote. Gingrich hyped up his prospects after trouncing Romney in South Carolina, but he faded almost immediately thereafter. There are many reasons that can be given for this -- Gingrich was too brash, he had too much baggage, there were too many attack ads against him, Romney just had too much money -- but a big one is simply this: the conservative bloc of the Republican Party is only so big, and it needs to unite to beat the establishment bloc.

Conservatives didn't unite sufficiently around Gingrich, and it seems overly optimistic to expect that they will do so around Santorum. It has been made abundantly clear throughout this campaign that even a candidate with 5 or 10 percent of the vote can be a spoiler, and since Gingrich has repeatedly rejected the idea of dropping out, a unified conservative vote simply doesn't seem plausible.

The nomination is clearly Romney's to lose, said Michael Berry, a political scientist at the University of Colorado at Denver. I think it's possible [Santorum or Gingrich] could still win the nomination, but certainly Romney's success so far and his fundraising advantage -- really, Obama's the only one who's able to fund-raise on par with Romney, and that's just so important in reaching out to voters in these states.

The Real Race

The nomination will not be decided tonight, nor even necessarily on Super Tuesday. But the anti-Romney race probably will be -- and that is what Santorum is shooting for.

In that sense, Colorado and Minnesota are far more important to Santorum than Missouri is. He is almost certain to win Missouri, but that's because he's the only candidate who has campaigned there -- and that, in turn, is because today's primary in Missouri is virtually meaningless.

Missouri won't actually award any delegates until March, when it holds caucuses. Today's primary is a formality: the result of a squabble between the Missouri Republican Party and the Republican National Committee over the state's voting date.

It must be a really slow news day, joked Jay Dow, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, when asked about the Missouri primary. We're not even talking about it here.

Asked whether Santorum could present a win in Missouri as a symbolic victory, Dow said no. The other candidates really haven't been here. Gingrich isn't on the ballot, he said. I don't think it's going to be very easy to parlay this into something more significant.

The spotlight, then, should be on Colorado and Minnesota. That's where Santorum really needs to win, and that's where Gingrich really needs to fend him off.

Gingrich kind of has to finish second to maintain his anti-Romney status, David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University, said last Friday of the Nevada caucuses -- but the same is true of Colorado and Minnesota. If Santorum were to be close or to surpass him, then I think the roles reverse.