Next Tuesday, Feb. 7, conservatives will finally get the long-desired, head-to-head match-up between Mitt Romney and a "consistent conservative". Unfortunately for Newt Gingrich, he won't be the conservative alternative facing Mitt Romney in the Missouri Primary. That's because Gingrich didn't file for the ballot in Missouri, a serious miscalculation on his part. Instead conservatives will have a clear choice between Romney and Rick Santorum (with Ron Paul muddying the waters, perhaps).
The Missouri primary presents Santorum with the opportunity that he needs to sustain his campaign for the Republican nomination. If he can take down Romney in Missouri, cash will flow, free media will follow, and he'll be able to play in several of the super-Tuesday states on March 6. A Santorum victory will allow him to say that he, not Newt, is the true conservative alternative to Romney. He will also be able to point to the results of the Florida primary, where he gave Newt a free shot at Romney by abandoning the playing field, as further rationale for his primacy over Newt.
On the other hand, if Santorum cannot defeat Romney in Missouri, then its all over for his cash-strapped campaign. He can pack his bags, head home to Pennsylvania, and hope to get the call that asks him to be the VP nominee. He shouldn't hold his breath, however. Santorum seems to understand the stakes in Missouri, which is why he headed there first after his trip home to care for his sick daughter. He would be wise to spend the majority of his time and resources during the next week in Missouri rather than playing the field with the four caucus states.
The Missouri primary may only be a "beauty contest" with no delegates awarded, but for Rick Santorum it is his last opportunity to resuscitate his Presidential campaign. And for conservatives, it may be the last chance to stop Romney.