Mitt Romney’s inevitability as the eventual Republican nominee for president took yet another detour Tuesday night, as Rick Santorum swept caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota and won the in Missouri. 

In the latter contest, Santorum faced Romney without the presence of Newt Gingrich -- who had failed to qualify for the ballot. 

The Missouri contest effectively represented the closest thing to a head-to-head contest for any candidate against Romney we have experienced so far in the campaign.

Santorum’s strong performance in heavily conservative Missouri challenges Gingrich’s claim to being the most effective alternative to Romney, with the former Pennsylvania Senator receiving well over 50% of the vote. 

While Missouri did not allocate any delegates in what has affectionately been called a “beauty contest” primary, it compels many of those looking to either directly challenge Romney or to prolonge the nomination process to start seriously considering Santorum over Gingrich. 

Also, add victories in Colorado and Minnesota, and Santorum now has 4 wins to Gingrich’s 1. 

This makes the most significant change that came with Tuesday night’s results on the dynamic of the race between Newt and Rick.

However, it would be a mistake to over-interpret Santorum’s three state sweep as representing a sort of tectonic shift in his race with Romney. 

Romney remains the front-runner with the most formidable organization, ahead in the delegate count and well-positioned to win the two bigger contests in February being held in Arizona and Michigan. 

So while it is tempting to join the beehive of pundits who seize on every opportunity to make this a horse race, I prefer to assess the impact of last night on the front-runner’s campaign going forward.

The Romney campaign would be ill-advised to disregard some of the key messages sent by voters who again rejected giving their candidate a vote of confidence. 

In the grand scheme of the battle for the nomination, Minnesota’s historically quirky caucuses and Missouri’s non-binding primary do not mathematically mean very much. 

Though both contests did produce interesting subplots. 

Ron Paul finished ahead of Romney in Minnesota, and likely ended the evening being awarded more delegates than Gingrich. 

Also, as mentioned earlier, Missouri’s results have a meaningful and powerful impact on Santorum’s race with Gingrich than Romney.

But Santorum’s unexpected victory in the Colorado caucuses, a contest Romney dominated in 2008, reveals the depth of doubt that remains for the likely GOP nominee. Combine the three loses into one night, and you get the re-emergence of storyline that the Romney campaign thought they put to rest after his big win in Florida.

The three contests shared a few common variables that give us insight to why Romney may have significantly underperformed. 

First, a heavy turn out from the conservative base. 

Secondly, minimal amounts of paid media from any of the candidate campaigns or Super Pac’s. 

Lastly, voting took place during a week where social politics played a role on the national stage, with President Obama forcing Catholic institutions to implement elements of his health care law that violated their own conscious and doctrine.

So the question that must be asked is whether Mitt Romney can win the hearts and minds of the all important conservative base without spending huge amounts of money on negative ads, and more importantly, in rapid enough fashion to avoid creating a deeper divide that haunts him to the convention in Tampa.

Recent national polling that once showed Mitt Romney statistically tied or ahead of Barack Obama has started to shift decidedly in Obama’s favor. 

A static analysis would conclude that perceptions of an improving economy, a negatively charged GOP primary and a series of Romney verbal gaffes have led to this. 

An examination of the numbers, however, by pollster Scott Rasmussen, shows a more serious, though more solvable, problem for Romney. 

His support among Republicans is less than Obama’s support among Democrats. That mainly is what represents the gap between them.

Last night’s three contests exposed that weakness that Romney must address as rapidly and effectively as he did Gingrich’s surge after South Carolina. 

He should avoid attacking Santorum, who, though now a more serious competitor, can help Romney improve his appeal to conservatives by forcing him to engage on the issues and proving he can be an articulate messenger of conservative idea.

For Santorum, last night’s three contests proved at the very minimum, that sometime nice guys can finish first, and gives him the rightful claim to the mantle of “happy warrior” that Gingrich has tried unsuccessfully to capture.

Tony Sayegh is a Republican campaign consultant, political analyst and National Correspondent for Talk Radio News Service. He appears regularly on the Fox News Channel, Fox Business Channel and weekly on FoxNews.com Live. You can e-mail Tony at tony4ny@yahoo.com.

Tony Sayegh is a Republican Strategist, National Political Correspondent for Talk Radio News Service and a Fox News contributor.  You can follow him on Twitter @tony4ny and e-mail him at tony4ny@yahoo.com