Mitt Romney squeezed past Rick Santorum to win Ohio’s presidential primary, capturing the biggest Super Tuesday prize but raising enough doubts to quash hopes of quickly ending the Republicans’ bruising nominating fight.
A week after the former Massachusetts governor seemed to take command of the presidential race with victories in Arizona and, more significantly, his native state of Michigan, the contest was pitched into renewed upheaval.
With more than 99 percent of the Ohio votes counted, Romney was clinging to a narrow lead of about 12,000 votes.
Earlier, the former Massachusetts governor won four states he was expected to claim: Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts and Idaho, piling up nominating delegates in the process.
“We’re going to get more before this night is over,” Romney told cheering supporters in Boston. “We’re on our way.”
His mood, however, appeared less celebratory than resigned to several more weeks of hard campaigning, which he and many in the party had desperately hoped to avoid.
Santorum won North Dakota — a surprise — Oklahoma and Tennessee. The latter two denied Romney the Southern breakthrough he sought to show his appeal among religious voters and cultural conservatives, underscoring their stubborn resistance toward his candidacy.
Santorum, speaking before the results in Ohio were known, struck a proud and defiant note.
“We’ve won races all across the country against the odds,” the former Pennsylvania senator said at a late night rally in Steubenville, Ohio. “When they thought, OK, he’s finally finished, we keep coming back.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carried Georgia, home of the district he represented for years in Congress. He, too, said victory proved the naysayers wrong and expressed his determination to fight on.
“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.
In all, voters in 10 states were casting ballots in Super Tuesday contests. But while Georgia dispensed the most delegates, the greatest 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 sunk into deep recession, then emerged to a fitful recovery.
It is a state vital to GOP hopes of winning the White House: no Republican has even been elected president without carrying Ohio. Romney’s struggle to fend off Santorum — despite considerable advantages — seemed certain to seed further doubts about his ability to win over working-class and blue-collar voters who are vital to Republican success in the battleground states of the Midwest.
The results flashed other caution signs. Romney 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 resistance has kept Romney from wrapping up the nominating fight as quickly as he would like.
The fourth candidate in the race, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, was hoping for his first victory in the one remaining caucus state, Alaska. (Voters in Wyoming were also caucusing, but they will not finish for some time.) Paul campaigned hard in North Dakota and appeared there election night, but came up unavailing.
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 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 Barack 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.