WASHINGTON – The ten states holding contests Super Tuesday offered Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich each something to celebrate. What the contests didn't do is clarify the Republican contest.
The Super Tuesday results helped Romney, the field's putative front-runner, open up a sizable lead over his rivals in the hunt for delegates to the party's national convention. The former Massachusetts governor can claim his razor-thin victory in Ohio — one of six triumphs in a single night — as a come-from-behind win since polls showed Santorum with a double-digit lead a week ago.
"I'm going to get this nomination," Romney told supporters at a campaign party in Boston, stressing his mounting delegate lead.
Santorum, for his part, snapped a four-state losing streak by winning three states, Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota. Perpetually short on cash with a limited organization and narrow focus on social issues, Santorum seemed to do it simply by not being Romney.
"When they say, 'Oh, he's finally finished,' we keep coming back," Santorum told supporters at an election night party in Steubenville, Ohio.
Gingrich won just one state, Georgia, where he launched his political career from a congressional district he represented for 20 years. But it was a threshold he acknowledged he had to cross to remain credible in the race.
"I hope the analysts in Washington and New York, who spent June and July explaining our campaign was dead, will watch this tonight and learn a little bit from this crowd and from this place," Gingrich said at a campaign party in Atlanta.
Here's how they did it:
For Romney, the week leading up to Super Tuesday involved a laser-like focus on the economy. After his twin wins last week in Michigan and Arizona, Romney decamped to Toledo, Ohio, and focused strictly on his economic pitch.
Romney cast his rivals — particularly Santorum — as disorganized and interested in tangential issues, which he argued would hurt Republicans against President Barack Obama in the general election. While Romney had allowed himself in the past to get dragged into fights over social issues and arguments over whether he was conservative enough to appeal to the GOP base, he abandoned that course after Michigan.
Romney refused to be drawn into the uproar surrounding Rush Limbaugh's speculative comments about contraception and a female law student's sex life, even though the frenzy at times seemed to overshadow events on the campaign trail.
Romney's campaign also played the inevitability card, pointing to an inexorable delegate march they insist none of his GOP rivals can stop. The campaign also rolled out endorsements from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other Republican leaders, hoping to convey the message that party stalwarts are lining up behind Romney's candidacy.
Romney also received a significant boost from Restore Our Future, the super PAC run by several of his former advisers. Together, the Romney campaign and super PAC outspent Santorum 4 to 1 in Ohio, mostly on ads pummeling the former Pennsylvania senator for his spending and deal-making during his years in office.
Romney won Massachusetts, where he lives and served as governor, along with neighboring Vermont. He won Idaho, with its large population of Mormon voters, and easily won Virginia after Santorum and Newt Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot there, leaving Ron Paul his only competitor. And he tacked on Alaska at the end.
A week ago, Romney managed just a narrow win in his home state of Michigan after a series of unforced stumbles reinforced lingering doubts about his candidacy.
He spoke awkwardly of his wealth, telling voters he had friends who are NASCAR team owners and his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs." He delivered an economic speech in a gigantic and near-empty football stadium, serving up an embarrassing visual metaphor for a campaign that has seemed to draw little excitement from voters.
Santorum's relatively strong showing Tuesday surprised many observers, who had sensed his candidacy beginning to fade after losing Michigan and Arizona to Romney. But his pro-manufacturing message and heavy emphasis on social issues remained consistent and drew a fresh look in conservative strongholds.
An outspoken social conservative, Santorum at times seemed to let his opposition to single-parent families and children born out of wedlock overshadow his economic pitch. At a weekend campaign stop in Lima, Ohio, he said lack of attention to family dysfunction and other social issues was "damning" people.
But Santorum's consistent, values-laden message again helped him outperform Mitt Romney in key segments of the Republican electorate.
In Ohio, born-again or evangelical Christians give Santorum a double-digit lead, according to exit polls taken for The Associated Press and the television networks. Likewise, those who say it matters a great deal that a candidate shares their religious views gave Santorum a lead of about 30 points.
Gingrich's sole victory in Georgia breathed some new life into a candidacy that has gone winless since South Carolina weeks ago.
He had originally planned to campaign extensively in Ohio as well as Tennessee, but dialed back when it became clear a win in Georgia was the best and most realistic outcome he could hope for. The win offered some plausibility to his all-Southern strategy, which will be tested anew in primaries in Alabama and Mississippi next week.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Boston, Tom Beaumont in Atlanta and Steve Peoples in Steubenville, Ohio, contributed to this report.
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