(Photo: Associated Press)

BY KYLE SCHAFER, Staff Writer

Mitt Romney emerges from a rocky week on the GOP primary schedule as the frontrunner.

At the beginning of the week, Gov. Romney was the frontrunner. At the end of the week, Gov. Romney was the frontrunner. In the middle was a string of seemingly endless events that would bring many men to the point of Alka Seltzer.

After facing further criticisms of not connecting with average Americans when he said in a February 1 interview, “I’m not concerned with the very poor, we have a safety net there,” his lead in the polls began to dwindle. In all fairness, critics took the statement out of context, as the former Massachusetts Governor went on to say, “I’m concerned about…the ninety–ninety-five percent of Americans who are really struggling.”

On Tuesday, Gov. Romney took his biggest blow, after losing three non-binding primaries to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. The three contests, in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, represented a setback for the Romney campaign, and a huge victory for Sen. Santorum, who enjoyed a few moments as the frontrunner.

(Graphic: Kyle Schafer/MJ)

It was a calculated plan by the Santorum campaign, which, operating on a shoestring budget compared to the Romney campaign, essentially gave up on trying to win in Florida–a winner-take-all delegates race, heavily contested by Sen. Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich–looked ahead in the schedule and decided to try and win some momentum in the three contests. It was a calculated risk that paid off for Sen. Santorum.

In Colorado, Santorum captured 40% of the vote, compared to Romney’s 35%. In Missouri, Santorum, in his biggest victory, took 55% of the vote to Romney’s 25%. In Minnesota, perhaps Romney’s worst defeat, Santorum won with 45%, defeating Texas Congressman Ron Paul with 27%, and Romney, who finished third with 17%.

Missouri was probably the toughest loss for Romney to take. He lost the race by 30 points, in an important general election bellwether state, while his biggest competitor at the time, Newt Gingrich, was not even on the ballot.

As the week wore on, the dialogue of the campaign shifted from the economy to personal rights and women’s health issues–most notably birth control. This represented a conservative shift in the tone, and at the appropriate time, as the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was held that weekend.

After being under fire for much of his political career for not being conservative enough for the Republican base, Romney had to show off his conservative chops at the annual CPAC event in Washington, D.C. He must have pulled impressed the event’s attendants, as he won the annual straw poll.

On Saturday, Maine was ending its week-long caucus, and there were speculations that Paul would come away with the win. However, Romney got some much-needed good news when polls showed that he won the contest with 39% to Paul’s 36%. Maine was another state non-binding election, as their delegates will be committed at the state convention in May.

After this topsy-turvy week, the delegate count stands at Romney with 123, Santorum with 72, Gingrich with 32, and Paul with 12, with 1,144 needed to claim victory. This race is still far from its conclusion.

The next contests on the calendar are twin primaries in Arizona and Michigan, both on February 28. This will be followed by Washington’s caucus the following Saturday, and the 10-state “Super Tuesday” on March 6.

Early reports believe that Santorum will focus his campaign on Michigan, often referred to as “Mitt Romney’s backyard.” So, Michiganders had better prepare to be peppered by the first round of 2012 campaign advertising in the next few weeks.

Michigan’s primary is an open primary, which means that any registered voter may choose between the candidates on the Republican ballot or the Democratic ballot (only President Barack Obama is on the Democratic ballot). Get out there and go vote!