Rick Santorum backers in Tulsa react to news of their candidates Super Tuesday… (James Gibbard, Tulsa World )
Reporting from Washington — A presidential primary season that opened with great promise for Republicans is entering its second half with a flawed front-runner and shaky prospects for victory in the fall.
Mitt Romney won six states Tuesday, extending his lead in convention delegates. But in some respects he came out of the day in worse shape than he began it. His scrappy rival, Rick Santorum, has been reinvigorated by wins in three states, and Romney's hopes for a swift end to a brutal GOP campaign have disappeared. Now, the Romney camp is being forced to buckle down for what could be a prolonged struggle for delegates that runs well into the spring, and possibly beyond, to the national convention in August.
"I am prepared to fight all the way to become the nominee," Romney told CNBC on Wednesday. "We think that will get done before the convention. But one thing I can tell you for sure is there's not going to be a brokered convention, where some new person comes in and becomes the nominee. It's going to be one of the four people that are still running."
Romney is still the odds-on favorite to become his party's nominee, and President Obama remains a vulnerable incumbent. But recent polling shows Obama leading all of the Republican contenders in test matchups, as well as increasing evidence that the prolonged, divisive primary battle is causing significant damage to the GOP.
"The economy is improving and people are feeling a little bit better about Obama, especially independents. Also, the Republican Party and the Republican candidates have lost ground in the eyes of voters," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
But "the Democrats can't take anything for granted," he said. "They're in better shape than they were several months ago, but it's way too early to pocket this one."
Romney's immediate challenge remains his Republican opponents. Newt Gingrich, marginalized by his failure to win outside the Deep South and seething with resentment at Romney and the national GOP "elite," whom he castigated Tuesday as he claimed victory in Georgia, is regarded by party insiders as a threat who could prolong his candidacy almost indefinitely.
The former speaker of the House and Santorum "are in this for the long haul. You have got two of the most stubborn conservatives in the movement, not willing to blink for the other," said a longtime Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about his party's prospects. "It helps Romney a lot that Newt is still in there. If he dropped out, Romney would have his hands full with Santorum."
Santorum, a more agile politician than Romney, has emerged as a surprisingly tough opponent. The former senator from Pennsylvania came within 10,000 votes (out of 1.2 million cast) of scoring an upset in Ohio. And his emotional speech there on election night, about family, freedom and heartland values, highlighted his campaign's greatest asset: his own political skills.
"We're in it to stay," he said afterward.
Santorum's accomplishments are all the more impressive because of a glaring lack of financial resources and an improvisational campaign that relies heavily on existing conservative networks: evangelical Christians, antiabortion activists, fellow home-schoolers and tea party supporters. In Ohio, Romney outspent him by more than 4 to 1, an advantage that helped Romney claw his way back after trailing in preelection polls.
Romney's aides argued Wednesday that the former Massachusetts governor was the only contender with a clear mathematical path to the nomination, although he currently has fewer than 40% of the delegates needed to win. According to the latest Associated Press count, Romney has 415 delegates of the 1,144 required. Santorum has 176 delegates; Gingrich, 105; and Ron Paul, 47.
Yet two months into a grueling primary campaign, he remains unable to rally the GOP's conservative base and unite the party, despite having more wins than all of his rivals combined.
Exit polls from Tuesday's contest revealed an increasingly familiar, and troubling, pattern for Romney: He's winning upscale, better-educated Republicans but running poorly among blue-collar voters — a key swing group in presidential elections. In Oklahoma and Tennessee, which Santorum won easily, Romney got less than one-fourth of the votes of those earning less than $50,000 a year.
Perhaps most worrying for the Romney camp: Their candidate is losing ground when primary voters are asked which candidate best understands the problems of average Americans. His recent ill-chosen remarks, such as volunteering that his wife owns "a couple of Cadillacs," have served to highlight the gap between ordinary voters and one of the wealthiest men ever to seek the presidency.
"They need to try harder," said the Republican strategist. "You can't just have people who make over $250,000 a year voting for you and not have the conservatives and evangelicals. You've got to work on building the coalition."