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Super Tuesday: Romney starts fast, Santorum hangs tough

March 06, 2012|By Mark Z. Barabak
  • Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum waves during an election night rally at the Steubenville High School gymnasium in Steubenville, Ohio.
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum… (Mario Tama / Getty Images )

Reporting from Columbus, Ohio – Mitt Romney chalked up Super Tuesday wins in Virginia, Vermont and Massachusetts, seeking to fasten his grip on the GOP nomination by dominating the single biggest day of balloting in the hard-fought primary campaign.

But Rick Santorum won Tennessee and Oklahoma – denying Romney a breakthrough in those Southern states – and was locked in a neck-and-neck fight with the former Massachusetts governor in Ohio, the day's most sought-after prize.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carried Georgia, home of the district he represented for years in Congress.

“I want you to know, in the morning, we are going to Alabama, we're going on to Mississippi, we're going on to Kansas and that's just this week,” Gingrich told cheering supporters in Atlanta, referring to the next set of contests.

A short time later, speaking to backers in Steubenville, Ohio, Santorum also vowed to press on.

“Tonight, it’s clear, it’s clear. We’ve won races all across this country against the odds. When they thought oh, OK, he’s finally finished, we keep coming back,” said the former Pennsylvania senator, joined at the podium by his wife, six of his seven children, and his 93-year-old mother. “We’re in this thing not because I so badly want to be the most powerful man in this country. It’s because I want so badly to return the power to you in this country.”

A determinedly upbeat Romney spoke a short time later in Boston, as votes were still being counted in Ohio. He cited his three victories, and added, “We’re going to get more before the night is over. We're on our way.”

In all, voters in 10 states were casting ballots in Super Tuesday contests. But most of the attention was focused on Ohio, a November battleground, where Romney and Santorum 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 sank into deep recession, then emerged to a fitful recovery.

Santorum touted his roots across the border in a Pennyslvania 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.”

The fourth candidate in the race, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 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.)

With his three victories and strong showing in Ohio, Romney added to his lead among delegates. But the results continued to flash caution signs.

He trailed Santorum and Gingrich, respectively, among the most conservative voters in Ohio and Georgia, according to exit polls. He also showed continued weakness among evangelical Christians, perhaps because of concerns about his Mormon faith.

While those voters -- who represent the base of the party -- are likely to rally behind the eventual winner, the resistence has kept Romney from wrapping up the nominating fight as quickly as he would like.

Overall, 437 delegates were at stake Tuesday, considerably more than in the 12 previous contests combined; 1,144 delegates are needed to secure the GOP nomination.

Even before the first ballots were cast, Romney was assured a victory in Tuesday’s 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 important target for both political parties in November. Santorum also forfeited more than a dozen Ohio delegates by failing to qualify representatives 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 financial and organizational advantages.

Both were brought to bear on Super Tuesday. Repeating a pattern seen throughout the contest, Romney vastly outspent Santorum on television, 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 distressed.

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