Romney wins big, but rivals hang in
Tips Santorum in Ohio for day's top prize
STEUBENVILLE, Ohio - Mitt Romney narrowly beat Rick Santorum in the Ohio primary, the jewel of Super Tuesday, and won in five of the other nine states up for grabs in the Republican presidential contests. Newt Gingrich’s win in Georgia kept his hopes alive in a fight that could continue for weeks.
Ohio, the marquee matchup of the night, was called by the Associated Press for Romney early Wednesday morning.
“I’m not going to let you down,’’ Romney told supporters at Boston’s Westin Copley Place Hotel. “I’m going to get this nomination.’’
With far less money and organization than the Romney campaign, Santorum and Gingrich reveled in their ability to continue the race.
“We have won in the West, the Midwest, and the South, and we’re ready to win across this country,’’ Santorum told a cheering crowd at a high school gymnasium in Steubenville, Ohio.
“Wall Street money can be beaten by Main Street work,’’ Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, told supporters at his Atlanta victory celebration, in what appeared to be a reference to attacks against him by Romney. “We’re going on,’’ he said.
While voters in 10 states cast ballots on the day known as Super Tuesday, much of the evening’s focus was on Ohio, which plays a pivotal role in general elections and has become one of the defining battlefields of the primary campaign. Santorum had led in the Ohio polls in recent weeks but began to lose his lead after Romney beat him last week in Michigan. Romney heavily outspent Santorum in television advertising in the state, hoping for a knockout blow of the former Pennsylvania senator.
Altogether, as many as 437 delegates were at stake in the 10 races.
Romney won at least 212 Super Tuesday delegates and Santorum won at least 84. Gingrich won at least 72 delegates and Texas Rep. Ron Paul got at least 22, according to an Associated Press tally. While a total of 419 delegates were up for grabs in 10 states Tuesday, a handful were left to be allocated.
Romney did not manage to drive his opponents from the field. His campaign had hoped to win in Tennessee, but Santorum benefited there from strong support among conservatives, according to exit polls.
Romney, who failed to win the nomination in 2008, is now on his second effort to gain the prize that has eluded him as well as his father, George Romney, who unsuccessfully sought the party’s nod in 1968.
In an era where super PACs can flood the contest with new money from a single donor - and where each time it has appeared Romney could lock up the nomination, the race only became more fluid - the mixed results on Tuesday brought more uncertainty to the nomination.
Romney questions about the depth of his strength among the party base, particularly among conservatives, evangelicals, and Tea Party activists.
Romney easily beat Santorum among Ohio voters who said in exit polls that the most important factors were the ability to defeat President Obama and having the right experience. But Santorum was the overwhelming favorite among those who believed the most important quality was being a true conservative and having strong moral character.
Santorum, meanwhile, lagged among female voters, some of whom may have been put off by his personal opposition to contraception. Santorum lost to Romney by three percentage points among women and was even among men in Ohio exit polls. But more men than women voted in Ohio, making the race tight.
Santorum had hoped that a win in Ohio would cement his standing as the chief Romney alternative and prove that the former Massachusetts governor is unable to connect with blue-collar workers. But even before the Ohio results were announced, his campaign vowed to continue.
“There’s no resting in this campaign,’’ said Santorum’s chief strategist, John Brabender. “We know it’s a close race,’’ he said.
Santorum’s lack of money and organizational problems were evident. His campaign failed to file paperwork needed to win delegates in some precincts, including in Steubenville, where he held his election night celebration. There were also questions about Santorum’s ability to woo independent and moderate voters.
“I’m not sure if he can widen his net . . . . and it’s unclear how he’ll attempt to come back toward the middle,’’ said Professor Richard Herrmann, chair of the Political Science Department at Ohio State University.
“It usually comes down to Ohio’’ in the general election “but usually not in the primary,’’ Santorum told supporters who gathered in Cuyahoga Falls on Monday for an election eve rally.
Sheila Cochran, of Cambridge, Ohio, said she voted for Romney because “We’re above the national average in terms of unemployment. I believe in his plan to turn our economy around. I know his integrity and leadership.’’
But Jon Johnson, an audio and video producer from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, said he voted for Santorum because “I want to see a conservative candidate against Barack Obama. . . . . Romney just seems to be who he needs to be on any given day. He’s a political chameleon.’’
Gingrich hoped that his victory in Georgia would resurrect his campaign, and he vowed to continue.
Gingrich, like Santorum, has had organizational problems. He did not vote in the state where he resides - Virginia - because his campaign failed to get enough signatures to put him on the ballot.
Santorum also failed to get on the Virginia ballot. That helped enable Romney, who faced competition only from Representative Ron Paul of Texas, to win a state in which 49 delegates were at stake.
Romney, as he has from the start of the campaign, tried to convey an aura of inevitability.
After spending the past week hop-scotching around the country, Romney flew to Boston on Tuesday and voted near his home in Belmont. After casting his ballot, he held a press conference at which he was asked about the way Obama had wished him luck earlier in the day. Obama had made the comment after declining to respond to Romney’s comment that the president’s leadership had been “feckless.’’
“Do you think that was an endorsement?’’ Romney said about the president’s comment. “I hope so, but I don’t think so. I appreciate the good wishes and, uh, wish him the best.’’
Romney won in Idaho, where a large number of voters share Romney’s Mormon faith. Paul, who had not won any states prior to Super Tuesday, is focused primarily on amassing delegates to influence the platform at the Republican National Convention.
Romney’s campaign had worked hard in Tennessee in hopes of dispelling doubts about the ability of a Mormon and former Massachusetts governor to appeal to evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt. Romney and his super PAC have been advertising across Tennessee, and the governor, Bill Haslam, has been holding a series of rallies on Romney’s behalf.
While has won among wealthy voters living in suburbs, he has struggled to convince blue-collar workers to support him.
Romney’s recent pitch emphasized mathematics. His campaign has argued that, while Romney may not be the one that provides the red meat for the right, he is collecting an insurmountable lead in the fight for delegates. The winner needs 1,144 delegates to win.
But Romney has also resorted to the types of negative attacks on his rivals that, while effective, have caused independents to sour on him. In Ohio in recent days, nearly every commercial break included at least one ad from Romney, or the super PAC supporting him, criticizing Santorum.
Michael Levenson of the Globe contributed. Calvan reported from Ohio, Viser from Boston, and Kranish from Washington. Viser can be reached at email@example.com.