Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney looks at his ballot with… (Gerald Herbert / Associated…)
Reporting from Columbus, Ohio — Mitt Romney jumped out to Super Tuesday victories in Virginia and Vermont, extending his winning streak as he sought to fasten his grip on the GOP nomination by dominating the single biggest day of balloting in the volatile primary season.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was projected as the winner in Georgia, the state he represented for years in Congress and where he retreated for a last stand to resurrect his sagging campaign.
“Thank you Georgia!” Gingrich tweeted soon after the television networks projected his victory. “It is gratifying to win my home state so decisively to launch our March Momentum.”
All three states were performing as expected in early returns, rewarding candidates in their home regions and, in the case of Virginia, where former Massachusetts Gov. Romney faced no serious opposition.
He seemed assured of another win in his home state, where Romney voted Tuesday evening in the Boston suburbs.
In all, voters in 10 states were casting ballots in Super Tuesday contests that promised to either push Romney beyond the reach of rivals, or stoke Rick Santorum's challenge and reopen the question why Republican voters won't embrace the party's national front-runner.
The most crucial test was here in Ohio, a November battleground, where Romney and the former Pennsylvania senator devoted the bulk of their time and resources. Both candidates focused on the economy in a Rust Belt state that hurt long before the rest of the country sunk into deep recession, then emerged to a fitful recovery.
Santorum touted his roots across the border in a Pennsylvania steel town, saying he would seek to strengthen the economy by restoring America's manufacturing might. Romney unveiled a new slogan -- ”more jobs, less debt, smaller government” -- and jabbed at Santorum's digression into subjects like contraception and the separation of church and state.
“During this campaign there has been discussion about all sorts of issues,” Romney said in Canton. “I keep bringing it back to more jobs, less debt and smaller government. That's what my campaign is about.”
Beyond Ohio, Santorum hoped to snap Romney's weeklong winning streak by taking contests in Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul was hoping for his first victories in one of three caucus states, North Dakota, Idaho or Alaska. (Voters in Wyoming were also caucusing, the first step in a convoluted delegate-selection process that goes on for weeks.)
Overall 437 delegates were at stake Tuesday, considerably more than the 12 previous contests combined and just more than a third of the 1,144 needed to secure the GOP nomination.
Even before the first ballots were cast, Romney was assured a victory in the delegate count, thanks in part to the organizational failings of his main rivals.
Paul was the only Republican other than Romney to qualify for the ballot in Virginia, one of the larger states voting Tuesday and another target for both political parties in November. Santorum also forfeited more than a dozen Ohio delegates by failing to file complete slates in several congressional districts, including the one in which he held his election night party.
The shortfall underscored the advantage that Romney has maintained throughout the ups and downs of the turbulent nominating fight: his big advantage in financial and organizational capabilities.
Both were brought to bear on Super Tuesday. Repeating a pattern seen throughout the contest, Romney vastly outspent Santorum on the television airwaves, strafing his chief rival with a relentless barrage of negative advertising.
Santorum sought to make Romney's spending and attack ads an issue -- as Gingrich had in earlier states -- but most voters did not seem as upset.
Party leaders and other insiders have grown increasingly concerned, however, about the toll the contentious nominating fight has taken on the GOP and its candidates, reflected in polls showing gains by President Obama and increasingly sour views of the Republican field. That played to Romney's benefit, as he continued to rack up endorsements from within the party establishment in recent days.
With a string of three wins -- in Arizona, Michigan and Washington state -- Romney increasingly sought to project an air of inevitability, hoping to hasten a close to the contest. Strategists for Romney, knowing he was sure to win the delegate count, insisted that was the chief arbiter of success Tuesday.
“More important than winning this state or that state is achieving the requisite number of delegates to achieve the nomination,” Eric Ferhnstrom, a Romney advisor, told reporters Monday as the candidate flew between stops in Georgia and Ohio. “That’s what our focus is.”
But there were many ways to slice Tuesday's results and thus many ways for a candidate to claim victory and justify their continued campaigning, even if it becomes mathematically impossible for anyone but Romney to win the nomination outright.
So the race continues. Next up are caucuses Saturday in Kansas and, next Tuesday, primaries in Alabama and Mississippi.