Rick Santorum won big victories in three small contests in the Republican presidential race last Tuesday. In doing so, he reshaped the oft-reshaped nomination battle once again. But he has not installed himself as the favorite, and neither he nor Mitt Romney has established himself as the candidate who can do best in the general election.
These were small contests not because the states involved were small -- Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado all actually have populations near the national average -- but because the primary in Missouri and the caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado are nonbinding, and so their results don't give any candidate any national convention delegates.
So the contests weren't really for keeps, as all three were in 2008, when Romney won them all. It says something negative about Romney that he wasn't able to motivate many people to come forward to vote for him. But it doesn't say everything that Santorum was able to motivate more, with overall turnout tanking in Missouri and lower in Colorado and Minnesota than in 2008.
The one candidate who took a clear loss was Newt Gingrich, who failed to get on the ballot in Missouri, finished a miserable fourth in Minnesota and beat Ron Paul by 1 percent in Colorado. Those are dreadful results 16 days after his big win in South Carolina. It's not clear how he maintains the visibility he needs to recover.
Both Santorum and Romney can reasonably claim that he would be a stronger candidate in the general election. Republican voters in contests that count may want to examine and evaluate their claims.
Each can cite some supportive polls. Santorum, not as yet the target of high visibility negative campaigning, can point to recent national and Ohio polls showing him running stronger against Barack Obama. Romney can cite other national and Virginia polls showing him doing so.
Santorum's case is that he has shown appeal to blue-collar voters -- to the non-college-educated whites whom Democrats have been enticing to return to their fold for decades.
His platform, with its zero corporate tax on manufacturing, is tailored to appeal to these voters. And he believes that his strong conservative stand on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage can establish a link with tradition-minded people in Catholic neighborhoods and old factory towns.
The Obama administration's attempted decree that Catholic charities must buy health insurance including abortion pills gives him a strong talking point.
But are there as many votes there as Santorum thinks? The old steelworker House district where he was first elected in 1990 has been losing population ever since. And even in 2008, John McCain won non-college whites by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin.
Santorum would probably run better among this group than Romney, whose unforced errors and political tin ear have made him seem aloof.
But there's also a case to be made that Romney may run better among another, less noticed group -- affluent voters.
This year and in 2008, Romney's best showings in primaries have come in affluent areas. And polling seems to indicate that he does particularly well with affluent women.
Those are groups among whom Republicans have been slipping for more than a decade. In the 2008 presidential election, voters with incomes over $100,000 split 49 percent to 49 percent.
You can see the trend in the four suburban counties just outside Philadelphia. The first George Bush carried them with 61 percent in 1988. Since then, the Democratic percentage has been rising steadily, reflecting the liberal stands of affluent voters, especially women, on cultural issues.
Barack Obama carried them with 57 percent in 2008. You see similar patterns in the suburbs in most major non-Southern metro areas.
Santorum carried the Philadelphia suburbs in Senate races in 1994 and 2000. But in 2006, a dreadful year for Republicans, he lost them by 60 percent to 40 percent, a worse loss than McCain's.
Santorum would probably do better this year, with economics overshadowing cultural issues. But it's easy to imagine that Romney would run better in what seems to be his natural terrain.
Political analysts have been assuming that Democrats' gains among affluent voters are solid. But are they more solidly committed than non-college whites?
Both the "Santorum's stronger" and "Romney's stronger" theories seem plausible to me now; neither seems proven. I'll keep them in mind as the race continues.