How long is too long for the GOP primary?

Rick Santorum's wins on Tuesday could help propel the contest into the spring, which could help Democrats.  

Republicans are putting on a brave face as their primary season is poised to extend into the spring and beyond. Many in the party expected the knockout blow to be delivered by Florida voters and that Mitt Romney, following his victory there, would have been able to pivot into a general election campaign.

Instead, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum vowed to fight on, with the latter notching symbolic victories in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota on Tuesday.

Flyover country has cooled on Romney. After almost winning Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor has gone one for four in the caucus states, which some analysts believe is a sign of weakness with the GOP base.

"He had tepid support among major blocks of Republican voters like evangelicals and Tea Party supporters, those voters making under $50,000 per year, and those in rural areas," analyst Nate Silver wrote about Tuesday's results. 

That weak showing has emboldened Romney's rivals—Santorum in particular—and may help extend the race for the nomination.

That prospect has Democrats gleefully rubbing their hands as they tabulate the millions Republicans are pouring into friendly fire as opposed to directing at President Obama. Still, Republican strategists argue there's no reason to be concerned about an extended contest.

"A good fight toughens the skin and weeds out the herd," strategist Phillip Stutts told C&E. "That's a good thing. The best candidates that prepare and execute properly will be fine regardless."

During a speech in Denver, Romney said he’s focused on upcoming contests in Arizona, Michigan and on Super Tuesday, March 6. He also downplayed any divisions an ongoing race would expose in the party.

"When this primary season is over, we will stand united to defeat Barack Obama," he said.

Romney is still the clear frontrunner, but his failure to contest the three caucuses on Tuesday appears ominously similar to a strategy adopted by Hillary Clinton in 2008. She ceded the caucus states to Obama, who had the support of the party's grassroots activists. Obama's small victories in states like Colorado and Kansas added up. His campaign also followed up through the intricate caucus process to pick up more delegates as states held county and then state conventions. If Romney isn't careful, his rivals could adopt a similar strategy of attrition.

Ultimately, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul don't have the resources Obama did in 2008. But they have the ability to alter the campaign narrative and create the perception that Romney is weaker than his organization truly is.

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