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Santorum declared winner in Minnesota and Missouri votes

Rick Santorum has been declared the winner in Minnesota and Missouri's Republican presidential nominating contests, thrashing Mitt Romney.

Mr Santorum, a social conservative, was in a tight race with Mitt Romney in Colorado.

Defeat in Colorado for Mr Romney would be a huge upset, as he was expected to win easily on the eve of the vote.

The eventual Republican nominee will go on to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November's election.

Newt Gingrich, still Mr Romney's main challenger, hardly campaigned in the three states that voted on Tuesday, and did not even appear on Missouri's ballot.

Speaking from Missouri, Mr Santorum told supporters: "Conservatism is alive and well in Missouri and Minnesota!"

In Missouri, with 99% of the vote counted, Mr Santorum was in the lead with more than 55%, well ahead of former Massachusetts Governor Romney at 25%, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul at 12%.

In Minnesota, with 82% of the vote counted, Mr Santorum was on 45%, while Mr Paul was on 27% and Mr Romney third on 17%.

In Colorado, Mr Santorum was narrowly ahead with almost 38% of the vote, with 70% of votes counted.

But Mr Romney was snapping at his heels with 36% of the vote.

Pitching himself as the only true conservative in the presidential race, Mr Santorum campaigned hard ahead of the votes in Minnesota and Missouri - states with significant blocs of Tea Party and evangelical Christian voters respectively.

The former Pennsylvania senator, who had not won a contest since grinding out a narrow win in Iowa's caucuses back in January, has been viewed as a long-shot candidate.

Tuesday's victories will inject new momentum into Mr Santorum's campaign, as he hopes to displace Mr Gingrich as the conservative alternative to Mr Romney.

In Missouri, where Mr Gingrich did not appear on the ballot, Mr Santorum had the opportunity to marshal conservative voters behind his candidacy.

Mr Gingrich, who was campaigning in Ohio, told CNN: "I think the big story coming out tonight is going to be that it's very hard for the elite media to portray Governor Romney as the inevitable nominee after tonight's over."

Correspondents say the game plan of Mr Gingrich, a former House of Representatives Speaker, is to ride out February and hang on until March when Southern states where he stands a better chance of success come into play.

Mr Romney tried to boost his credentials on being anti-abortion, pro-religious freedom and opposed to gay marriage, in a last-ditch effort to win over social conservatives ahead of Minnesota and Colorado's caucuses.

During his first run for the Republican presidential nomination back in 2008, Mr Romney was victorious in both Colorado and Minnesota.

But both states are perceived to have moved to the right since then, so doubts over his Mormon faith and political record as governor of a liberal state could have cost him votes.

Playing down the significance of Tuesday's contests, Romney campaign political director Rich Beeson said earlier in the day: "Mitt Romney is not going to win every contest. John McCain [the 2008 Republican nominee] lost 19 states in 2008, and we expect our opponents will notch a few wins, too."

In Minnesota, 37 delegates are at stake with 33 up for grabs in Colorado. The primary in Missouri is being dubbed a "beauty contest" since it will actually allocate its delegates next month.

Before Tuesday's votes, Mr Romney had 101 of the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at the Republican Party convention in August, according to an Associated Press news agency tally.

In second place, Mr Gingrich was on 32 delegates, Mr Santorum 17 and Mr Paul nine.

Mr Romney has racked up the most victories in this year's election race, with resounding wins in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada.—BBC

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