Mitt Romney is still showing weakness among hard-line conservatives and Southerners, but he retained his spot as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday by winning the largest bloc of delegates and capturing key primaries in Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Idaho. With 92 percent of the votes counted, Romney also held a razor-thin 1 percent lead over Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in Ohio, the most contested of all 10 states that held nominating contests on Super Tuesday.
Romney immediately turned his attention to the fight against President Obama, telling Americans, "You have not failed. Your president has failed you."
The battle for Ohio was the most important of the night because it focused on a big battleground state that will be vital in the general election. The outcome for Romney in Ohio was better than it appeared from the popular vote because Santorum's campaign had failed to file the paperwork necessary to compete for all the delegates at stake, including those in areas where his support was strong. This means that Romney probably will win considerably more delegates than Santorum when the final delegate allocations are made.
For months, Santorum and other GOP candidates have condemned the former Massachusetts governor as an unreliable conservative who is out of touch with everyday people, adding to the negative tone of the race. But these arguments seemed to have a somewhat reduced importance in Ohio, which is a significant benefit for Romney.
Overall, Santorum still had a successful night, with wins in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee. They weren't the biggest prizes up for grabs but these wins were enough to keep him in the race, which he promised to do at a rally in Ohio. Romney edged Santorum in Ohio among women, 39 per cent to 37 per cent, while Santorum won men, 36-35, according to CNN exit polls. Romney also rolled up a 46 to 31 per cent margin among those 65 and older, which has been one of his best demographic groups throughout the primaries and caucuses. Older voters also have among the highest turnout rates of any group.
The divided field, with Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas splitting the conservative vote, will probably allow Romney to continue amassing enough delegates to remain in the lead.
And the GOP race is now all about collecting delegates on the way to the Republican nominating convention in Tampa this summer. Richard Phillips of Arlington, Virginia, voted for Romney and predicted that the former venture capitalist will be the nominee. "It's about time this thing ends for everybody's sake," Phillips said.
But Romney still has some convincing to do. Joe Brown of Lawrenceville, Georgia, voted for Gingrich even though he isn't enthusiastic about any of the candidates. "I voted for the lesser of all evils," Brown said, complaining that the GOP race has become too negative.
Overall, Republicans held contests in 10 states on Super Tuesday with 419 delegates at stake, the single biggest group of delegates up for grabs so far this year. Even though Romney was the big winner, he was by no means a consensus choice and the results, overall, amounted to a split decision. In addition to Santorum's wins in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee, Gingrich won Georgia, a state he represented in the House of Representatives for two decades.
As of late Tuesday night, Ron Paul had failed to win a single state--keeping his losing streak intact--but he was competitive in Alaska, where the returns were not yet available. But Paul was gaining enough delegates to keep him in the race.
It was clear that despite the split decision, Romney's delegate count may be insurmountable.
His advisers are comparing his situation to Barack Obama's in 2008 when Obama steadily increased his delegate count and, even though he lost key later primaries to Hillary Clinton, built up enough of an edge in delegates to give him the Democratic nomination. Rich Beeson, Romney's political director, sent an email to reporters arguing the Santorum won't be able to overtake Romney in the delegate race. "The Santorum campaign will be looking at a significant deficit to Governor Romney in bound delegates and no realistic hope of closing that gap," Beeson said.
After seven of the primaries and caucuses Tuesday, but before the results were known in the competition for Ohio's 63 delegates, a CNN analysis gave Romney 298 delegates to Santorum's 121, Gingrich's 83 and Paul's 52. Actually, the delegate count is more favorable for Romney because he has the support of an additional 23 delegates who have their spots because they are party officials, far more support than any other candidate has within the party establishment. The number needed for nomination is 1,144.
The remaining major GOP contests this month are the Kansas caucuses on March 10, primaries in Alabama and Mississippi March 13, the Puerto Rico primary March 18, the Illinois primary March 20 and the Louisiana primary March 24. Romney is expected to win Illinois. And while he has not shown much popularity in the South, he still is expected to collect enough delegates in these states to keep his overall lead as the race moves to more hospitable states for him such as those in New England and the mid-Atlantic region.
But beyond the primaries, Romney still has some important problems to deal with. The latest polls show that he lags behind President Obama in a general election matchup, and the harsh nature of the GOP campaign has damaged him.
Increasing numbers of Americans, especially crucial swing voters, have a negative view of Romney as perceptions take hold that he is a flip-flopper and can't connect with everyday Americans. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll released Monday found that Romney has an unfavorable rating of 39 percent among all voters while only 28 percent of voters see him favorably. Among independents, 38 percent see him negatively and 22 percent see him in favorably. The survey also found that President Obama leads Romney 50 percent to 44 percent in a general election matchup.
The poll also found that 40 percent of Americans say the nominating contests have left them with a less favorable impression of the Republicans and only about 10 percent say the primaries and caucuses have given them a more favorable view of the GOP.
Changing those impressions will be a big challenge for Romney as he marches toward the Republican nomination and, later, the general election.
Lauren Fox, Meg Handley, Rebekah Metzler and Rick Newman cont ributed to this report.