POLITICS
02/08/2012 04:58 EST | Updated 04/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Will Santorum finally be the candidate whose moment doesn't evaporate?

WASHINGTON - Rick Santorum was flying high on Wednesday, buoyed by his trio of triumphs in the Midwest over front-runner Mitt Romney and insisting he's the sought-after social conservative who can halt the former Massachusetts governor's march to the Republican presidential nomination.

In a race that has proven time and again that momentum is fleeting, it remained to be seen whether Santorum could start raising enough money to elbow Newt Gingrich out of the way and overtake Romney, the wealthy former venture capitalist who's already spent millions in his second run for president.

Santorum's campaign, meantime, said it raised $250,000 online on Tuesday night after he won handily the Missouri primary and the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses.

But the candidate argued Wednesday that success isn't dependent on cash.

"If money made the difference, we would not have won four primaries so far," the former Pennsylvania senator told CNN.

Santorum's victories, indeed, don't just pose a conundrum for Romney and his deep pockets. They've also put his fellow social conservative, Gingrich, in a pickle.

The former speaker of the House of Representatives has vowed to bring down Romney, and the most effective way to do it might involve dropping out of the race in order to allow a resurgent Santorum to consolidate the far-right voters of the Republican base. But will his legendary ego allow it?

Don't count on it, says a one-time Republican legislative aide.

"Newt's ego has always been in control — if ever Newt has a choice between self-aggrandizement and self-sacrifice, he'll always choose self-aggrandizement," says Jack Pitney, who now teaches politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.

As David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times put it earlier this week: "The transformative leader of monumental importance that he sees in the mirror every morning will not allow him to concede to what he believes is a lesser man."

Gingrich has vowed to stay in the race until the Republican National Convention in August. There's no doubt he'll hang in until so-called Super Tuesday on March 6th, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses.

Delegate-rich Georgia, where Gingrich is expected to do well since he once served the state as a congressman, is among the contests. He might also fare well in Tennessee that day.

But if Santorum manages to best him on Super Tuesday, some wonder how Gingrich can stay in the race, ego and all.

"Ego is keeping him in the race right now, but if it's increasingly dented, to save his reputation and his place in the conservative hierarchy, he might feel compelled to get out," Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Wednesday.

"Megalomania can only take you so far. If you're taking weekly drubbings, the way Rick Perry was, then you're going to want to stop the humiliation and bow out."

Fergus Cullen agrees.

"He did resign his speakership so it is possible for him to acknowledge defeat and step down, but it's premature right now — he's had bad days before, and he's had good days, and so have all the candidates," said Cullen, the one-time head of the New Hampshire Republican party.

Indeed, says Cullen, the most striking element of the topsy turvy 2012 race is how quickly momentum evaporates.

That's largely due to Republican primary voters who continue to harbour serious misgivings about Romney, whom they suspect is a secret moderate. Yet they can't decide which candidate they'd prefer as a front-runner.

"The dissipating momentum has been an unusual and unexpected phenomenon and raises questions about what it means to be a conservative in different states in different parts of the country," Cullen said.

"Are they changing their minds? Or are conservatives vastly different from state to state? Is the Tea Party the same in Florida as it is in the Midwest? Why did Newt carry married women in South Carolina but not Florida? That stratification has been really bizarre and unexpected."

And in such a climate, Cullen points out, it's no wonder candidates are hesitant to drop out. Their moment in the sun could loom just a few days beyond their latest humiliating defeat.

Pitney, however, believes Santorum's Midwest triumphs will prompt Republicans across the country to sit up and take notice. While Gingrich seems peevish and ego-driven, Santorum is increasingly projecting an air of competence and likeability.

"Most human beings are more likeable than Newt Gingrich; that's the most inexclusive club in the world," he said with a laugh.

"But we're beginning to see a side of Rick Santorum that allowed him to win a House seat that was historically Democratic, and then end up elected to the U.S. Senate a few years later. He's likeable and personable, although he can come across as strident, and he also has a very pragmatic streak. And his views are very much in the mainstream of the Republican party."