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Romney looks ahead to Super Tuesday contests

 CORRECTS LOCATION-Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during the Ohio 5th Congressional District Lincoln-Rea...
 Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, greets diners during a meet and greet at Corky's BBQ, Sunday, March ...

Gingrich 2012

CORRECTS LOCATION-Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during the Ohio 5th Congressional District Lincoln-Rea...

Santorum 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, greets diners during a meet and greet at Corky's BBQ, Sunday, March ...

Mitt Romney was looking to take control of the Republican presidential contest with a strong showing in Tuesday's contests in 10 states across the country, the largest single day of voting yet in the unpredictable primary race to find a challenger to President Barack Obama.
The former Massachusetts governor gained momentum over the weekend with his fourth straight victory in Saturday's low-turnout Washington state caucuses.
With 419 delegates to the party's national nominating convention at stake, the so-called Super Tuesday was shaping up to be a hard-fought day that could re-shape yet again the nomination battle.
But an intensifying debate over conservative social values threatened to overshadow an emphasis on the economic concerns of Americans that could be the key to winning the November election.
Romney and his chief rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, spent Sunday racing across Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Ohio, four of the 10 states to host contests on Super Tuesday.
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, appeared on four national Sunday morning television talk shows, reflecting his strategy of using media appearances to offset his advertising and organizational disadvantages. Texas Rep. Ron Paul campaigned in Alaska in an effort to pick up delegates in small states holding caucuses where supporters deeply committed to his libertarian views are likely to turn out.
Super Tuesday's defining contest may be in the Midwestern industrial state of Ohio, where Santorum and Romney have devoted tremendous time and resources in recent weeks. Santorum's performance there could well define his fate _ and Romney's _ in the rollercoaster race going forward.
"This is a game of survival," Santorum said while campaigning Sunday in Memphis, Tennessee.
Preparing for the worst, Romney's campaign began preparing for a possible loss in Ohio, where polls show the former Massachusetts governor locked in a dead heat with Santorum, a former U.S. senator from neighboring Pennsylvania.
"I don't think any state is a must-win," Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. "I think the only must-do on a candidate's check list is getting 1,144 delegates."
Romney's broad, well-disciplined organization virtually assures he'll collect more delegates than his opponents on Tuesday, in contrast with Santorum's looser group of supporters. Santorum and Gingrich did not collect enough signatures to qualify for the Virginia ballot, for example, and Santorum cannot win 18 of Ohio's 66 delegates for similar reasons.
But a win by the overmatched Santorum in Ohio would send a broad signal that Romney, long presumed the front-runner, is far weaker than anyone imagined. Gingrich said as much Sunday.
"Gov. Romney, who's outspent all the rest of us by multiples, is a front-runner without any question, but I think he's not a very convincing front-runner, and he's a long way from having closed out this race," he said.
On the other hand, a Santorum loss in Ohio, coupled with a convincing Gingrich victory in Georgia, could breathe new life into the former House speaker's candidacy and impede Santorum's greatest wish: a one-on-one contest against Romney in which he is the clear conservative alternative.
Lingering skepticism about Romney's conservative credentials among evangelical voters and supporters of the small government, low tax tea party movement has allowed Santorum and Gingrich to stay in the race, despite Romney's advantages in campaign funds and organization.
"For us to ultimately win this race is going to have to narrow down to two, and I think that will happen eventually," Santorum said in Memphis.
But Gingrich is showing no signs of going away.
The former Georgia congressman has declared the state he represented for 20 years a must-win. He holds a strong lead in recent polls there. On Sunday he predicted the race would go on "for a good while."
No candidate will sweep all 10 contests which span politically diverse regions. Other states holding primaries that day include Vermont and Massachusetts, where Romney is heavily favored. Alaska, North Dakota and Idaho are holding caucuses.
A Santorum victory in Ohio or broader success elsewhere will likely ensure his place as Romney's top rival. And that would help ensure that social issues play prominently in the Republican presidential contest going forward. Santorum has made headlines in recent days by emphasizing the need for two-parent families and fewer pregnancies out of wedlock. Saturday night, Santorum told an Ohio audience that the nation's inattention to conservative social values is "damning people."
In Oklahoma City on Sunday, Santorum was greeted by protesters who shouted slogans like "Get your hate out of my state." As Santorum supporters chanted "We pick Rick," the candidate himself was barely audible.
Santorum's 16-year congressional career was defined by his commitment to social issues such as opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage.
Romney, the former CEO of a private equity firm, prefers to emphasize his business experience and has emerged as the clear favorite of the party establishment who view him as the strongest contender against Obama. On Romney picked up endorsements from two influential Republican lawmakers: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, widely regarded as one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate.
But social issues continue to roil the campaign. The latest has been whether religious-sponsored organizations should be required under Obama's health reform plan to provide their employees with health insurance coverage that includes free contraception. A prominent conservative radio commentator, Rush Limbaugh, called a Georgetown University law student who had spoken out in favor of the Obama plan a "slut" and a "prostitute" who wanted the government to pay her for having sex. The backlash among women and advertisers forced Limbaugh to issue a rare apology.
The Republican contenders delicately tried to distance themselves from Limbaugh without hurting their standing among his huge conservative following. Romney said only that Limbaugh's comments about the college student were "not the language I would have used" and that he preferred to speak on more significant issues like jobs in Ohio. Gingrich said on CNN's "State of the Union" that he's glad the conservative commentator issued an apology and that it's time to move beyond the controversy.
Obama's chief political strategist suggested that Limbaugh's remarks _ and Republicans' slow repudiation of them _ would benefit Democrats in the general election.
"I think what Rush Limbaugh said about that young woman was not only vile and degrading to her, but to women across the country," David Axelrod said on ABC television's "This Week" Sunday morning.
Heading into Super Tuesday, Romney holds a commanding delegate lead, according to Associated Press projections.
He won 30 delegates in Washington while Paul and Santorum each won five, bringing Romney's total to 203, compared to 92 for Santorum, 33 for Gingrich and 25 for Paul. A total of 1,144 delegates is needed to win the nomination at the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, in late August.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Kasie Hunt in Memphis, Tennessee, and Katie Fretland in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

Updated : 2021-08-01 20:10 GMT+08:00