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Super PACs keep candidates in the game despite growing odds

As Republican-supporting Super PACs spend millions to keep their candidates in the presidential primary race, key Republicans are circling the wagons around Mitt Romney in hopes that Super Tuesday victories will create an air of inevitability as polls show the GOP suffering in public opinion polls from a protracted fight.

Super PACs have been central to preventing Romney from running away with the nomination despite a 111-delegate lead above closest rival Rick Santorum. Newt Gingrich has acquired 33 delegates while Ron Paul has 25. Tuesday's contests will award 419 delegates. and 1,144 are needed to win the nomination.

Four primary PACs have picked a winner in the GOP nomination. Romney is backed by Restore Our Future PAC. Gingrich has benefited from air time and advertising paid for with millions given by the Winning Our Future PAC. Santorum has received a windfall from spending by the Red, White and Blue Fund PAC and Paul has the aid of the Endorse Liberty PAC.

According to records from Opensecret.org and calculated by TheStreet.com, the four PACs spent $5.9 million between Feb. 29 and March 4 ahead of the Super Tuesday contests.

The money has paid a big role in keeping the Not Romney candidates afloat, but the surge in cash has taken its toll on both wallets and the candidates' favorability ratings.

According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll out Monday, 40 percent of adults -- including 23 percent of Republicans surveyed -- say the GOP contest has made them feel less favorable about the party while just 12 percent say they now have a more favorable impression. Forty-seven percent say it has not affected them. 

The poll also showed that Romney has been hurt by the ongoing battle. In the Feb. 29-March 3 poll of 800 adults, 28 percent had a favorable rating while 39 percent were unfavorable. That's down from a 31-36 favorable/unfavorable rating taken in January. 

At the same time, Romney is rising in Ohio, the critical battleground of Tuesday's vote. A Quinnipiac University poll gave Romney 34 percent of the vote among likely Republican primary participants compared to 31 percent for Santorum, who was leading by 7 points just a week ago.

He credited his upswing in the state on focusing on the most important issues. "I'll focus on getting good jobs and less debt and smaller government. Again, that's what I know. During this campaign there's been discussion about all sorts of issues, but I keep bringing it back to more jobs, less debt and smaller government. That's what my campaign is about. That's why I’m doing well in this state," he told voters in Canton, Ohio, on Monday.

Romney has also won critical endorsements from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative members of the Senate. On Monday, John Ashcroft, attorney general in the George W. Bush administration and a former Missouri senator, threw his support behind Romney. 

"No other candidate stands out for his executive leadership experience or ability to accomplish difficult task as does Mitt Romney," he said.

Santorum has warned that it will take more than cash to declare victory against President Obama, who endorsed the concept of super PACs last month after saying he didn't want the contest to be bought. 

"Whoever our Republican nominee is, isn't going to outspend Barack Obama 6: or 7: or 8 to 1 to win an election. They are going to have to win this election being outspent," Santorum said Sunday.

"Governor Romney has never won a state in this country where he was outspent. Think about that. Every state that he has won he has outspent his opponent at least four or five to one and he's barely won," Santorum said.

Santorum and Gingrich have both claimed in past contests that they've been outspent by the Romney campaign by 8:1. And a weekend tally by The Associated Press found that of the $75 million spent in the GOP race so far, $40 million was from Romney or his surrogates.

The investment appears to be paying off. Romney won the Washington state caucuses easily on Saturday, solidifying his lead on top of victories in Arizona and his home state of Michigan last week. 

On Tuesday, Romney will have a natural advantage in northeastern states such as Vermont and Massachusetts, where he was governor, a point Santorum noted as he campaigned for votes in Oklahoma. 

"I don't have my home state up on Super Tuesday like Congressman Gingrich or Governor Romney -- although Governor Romney has about five home states, I don't know how that works, but I don’t live that kind of life."

With Gingrich looking to win his home state of Georgia, the largest prize on Tuesday with 76 delegates, and Santorum taking Oklahoma and Tennessee, where his lead has shrunk against Romney in closing days, the race could go on for a while. 

But if Romney can pick up the crucial win in Ohio, and score decisively in other states where he's not native, the long haul favorite may just be on track to wrap up the contest, even if the other candidates are well funded enough to stay in the race. He said if that happens, he can start focusing on the Obama "juggernaut."

"The process may be long. It may be slow, but he's raising millions of dollars every month and has an organization, I'm told -- someone told me yesterday -- that he has 491 members of his staff, in his campaign staff," he said. "This is a huge juggernaut effort. And we're going to have to make sure that we push back against that kind of machine."