Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, speak at a rally Monday in Zanesville, Ohio. (Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images )
Mitt Romney has won a narrow victory over Rick Santorum in the marquee Super Tuesday battle of Ohio, according to a projection by the Associated Press.
Ohio's primary proved to be the tightest battle of the 2012 Republican nomination fight since the very first vote in Iowa on Jan. 3. Then, Romney was initially declared the winner by just eight votes. A revised tally weeks later put Santorum ahead by a few dozen votes.
It was a battle on Super Tuesday, and both men claimed their share of successes, though Romney was poised to score a decisive advantage in the fight for delegates. Romney also won in Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts and Idaho, while Santorum claimed victory in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota. Newt Gingrich won Georgia.
Voters also were casting ballots for a GOP presidential candidate in Alaska.
But even as nine other states were holding caucuses or primaries, both Romney and Santorum focused their energies on the Buckeye State in the final days. Some polls had shown Santorum ahead of Romney by double digits as recently as mid-February, before Romney began to close the gap. Final public surveys had it a dead heat, just as it appeared tonight.
Each candidate held the lead at some point tonight -- Santorum early on based on returns from rural counties, Romney in the end as he racked up majorities in the state’s main population centers. Once those returns started coming in, Romney quickly wiped out Santorum’s edge.
A total of 66 delegates are at stake in the Ohio primary, most of which will be based on the results in individual congressional districts. Fifteen will be awarded on a proportional basis according to the statewide total, with only Romney and Santorum surpassing the threshold needed to claim them.
In a sign of his organizational handicap, Santorum did not file delegate slates in three of the state’s congressional districts, meaning he is ineligible to win a total of nine delegates.
On paper, Ohio should have represented Santorum’s best chance for victory tonight. Though social issues and other verbal gaffes have drawn the most attention from the national press, his stump speech was tailored to the kind of working-class voters prevalent in the state.
Romney, as in other key states thus far in the GOP nominating race, was boosted by a sizable financial advantage. His own campaign and an affiliated “super PAC” had spent a combined $4 million on television advertising, compared to about $900,000 from Santorum and another super PAC supporting his candidacy.
In 2008 Ohio’s primary came well after the GOP nomination had been locked down by John McCain. The Arizona senator easily defeated Mike Huckabee, while most of the focus was on a much-needed victory by Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama in the Democratic primary.
Ohio is certain to be just as hotly contested in the general election. An NBC-Marist poll released Sunday showed Obama with a double-digit advantage over each of his potential GOP foes, one that is certain to narrow as the general election campaign heats up.