Mitt Romney has suffered a humbling blow in his quest to become the Republican nominee for president, losing three states to Rick Santorum, the social conservative who swept the races in an astounding comeback.

Mr Romney’s campaign sought to play down the loss of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Wednesday, saying that no delegates were awarded, meaning that none of the candidates have advanced any closer towards securing the nomination.

But the results underscored the extent to which Republican party supporters still have misgivings about Mr Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and wealthy former private equity executive who is viewed with suspicion by conservatives.

“This shows that the hardcore conservative base of the Republican party is in open revolt,” said Bill Schneider, a veteran political analyst at the Third Way think-tank, who has monitored every presidential election since 1964. “They are simply not buying Romney without a strong protest.

“In the end, I think they will probably still go for Romney, because he’s the only one who can beat [Barack] Obama, but they’re not happy about it,” Mr Schneider added.

Mr Romney won the caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota during his nomination bid in 2008 – notably taking 60 per cent of the vote in Colorado over John McCain’s 19 per cent.

On Tuesday night, he won only 35 per cent of the vote in the state, with Mr Santorum winning 40 per cent. This was on top of huge victories for Mr Santorum in Minnesota – where Mr Romney came third – and Missouri.

As bad as the results were for Mr Romney, they were worse for Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who has been positioning himself as the conservative alternative to Mr Romney.

Mr Gingrich – who won a landslide victory in South Carolina, but has since seen his candidacy come off the boil – campaigned little in the three states voting this week. Instead, he is saving his firepower for “Super Tuesday” on March 6, when 10 states – including Georgia, which he once represented – will vote.

Mr Santorum has been languishing since narrowly winning the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and many analysts were expecting him to withdraw from the race soon.

But even though no delegates were awarded on Tuesday night, the victories will inject new life into Mr Santorum’s cash-strapped campaign.

“We definitely are the campaign with the momentum, the enthusiasm on the ground,” Mr Santorum told CNN during a media blitz on Wednesday morning.

Donations were ticking up again. “We’re doing very, very well raising money. I think last night we raised a quarter of a million dollars online,” Mr Santorum said.

The “super-Pac”– political action committee – that supports him has received more than $1m in donations from Foster Friess, a billionaire Wyoming fund manager who was at Mr Santorum’s side as he claimed victory in St Charles, Missouri.

Although this is small change compared with Mr Romney’s fundraising ability, Mr Santorum said that he wouldn’t have won four races if money was the decider. “We feel we’re going to have the money we need to make the case we want to make,” he said.

The results put a huge dent in Mr Romney’s claim to be the inevitable nominee, following solid wins in Florida and Nevada last week.

Conservative opponents of Mr Romney were crowing.

“From Missouri to Minnesota to Colorado, the Republican electorate sent a very clear signal – they want conviction over electability,” said Eric Erickson, editor of the Red State conservative newsletter, one of Mr Romney’s fiercest critics.

“They do not like Mitt Romney. They see Santorum as authentic. They see Mitt Romney as a fraud,” Mr Erickson wrote, adding that Mr Romney got “crushed” by conservatives in the latest votes.

But Mr Romney suggested the latest results were just a bump in the road for his campaign.

“This was a good night for Rick Santorum. I want to congratulate Senator Santorum, wish him the very best,” Mr Romney told a rally in Denver, Colorado, on Tuesday night. “We’ll keep on campaigning down the road, but I expect to become the nominee with your help.”

Mr Gingrich’s poor performance – his best finish on Tuesday night was third place in Colorado – will cast a cloud over his ability to appeal to the broad base of voters needed to win the nomination.

Mr Schneider said he did not expect any of the remaining four – libertarian Ron Paul is also still running – to drop out of the nomination race until after Super Tuesday, when he said Mr Romney’s rivals would all be forced to “reassess” their bids.

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