(Photo: Associated Press)

BY BENJAMIN SZILAGY, Staff Writer

Last Tuesday, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum unexpectedly swept three Republican races in his search for the GOP nomination.

Even though former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the front-runner in the GOP race, Santorum’s victories last week in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri show that he’s a force to be reckoned with. Santorum started strong with a narrow victory over Romney in the Iowa Caucus by just two delegates, 14-12, but faded until last week.

Winning both Colorado and Minnesota, with 18 and all 37 delegates respectively, now firmly puts Santorum (72 delegates) in second place ahead of Newt Gingrich’s 32 delegates and behind Romney’s 112. 2,286 delegates are up for grabs in the race, but a candidate only needs 1,144 to win the GOP nomination.

On Feb 28, the Michigan primary with its 30 delegates hold even greater importance for Santorum and other candidates.

On MSNBCs “Morning Joe,” Santorum outlined how Michigan and he are mirror images of one another, being from a blue-collar, manufacturing state. Santorum hopes he can sway voters who might be spurred by Romney’s op-ed piece “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” in the New York Times four years ago.

“If General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for yesterday, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.” Romney said. “It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed,” he continued.

“Without that bailout, Detroit will need to drastically restructure itself. With it, the automakers will stay the course — the suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses. Detroit needs a turnaround, not a check.”

Romney is already doing damage control, visiting Michigan seven times, the most out of any candidate, since June 2011. Couple that and Romney winning the state’s straw poll back in September, and you can be sure that Gingrich and Santorum will plan to use that Op-Ed piece to chip away at Romney’s lead.