A share-the-wealth Super Tuesday means no rest for front-runner Romney

Mitt Romney won six of 10 Super Tuesday contests, enough to retain his front-runner status. But his hair-breadth's win in Ohio was not a convincing one, and the next states to vote don't favor him.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to supporters at his Super Tuesday primary election night rally in Boston, March 6.

On paper, Mitt Romney won Super Tuesday. The Republican presidential front-runner eked out a nail-biter in the most important primary of the day, Ohio, and won five of the other March 6 contests: Massachusetts, which he once governed, Virginia, Idaho, Vermont, and Alaska.

Rick Santorum maintained his status as the leading conservative alternative to Mr. Romney, beating him soundly in Tennessee – a state where Romney had hoped to be competitive – and also winning in North Dakota and Oklahoma. Newt Gingrich won the remaining contest, his home state of Georgia.

Romney remains the strong favorite to win the GOP nomination, leading the battle for convention delegates with 415 out of the 1,144 needed, according to the Associated Press. Former Pennsylvania Senator Santorum has 176, former House Speaker Gingrich has 105, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has 47. Those figures include “super delegates,” party leaders who may back whomever they wish.

But Romney’s underwhelming victory in Ohio, where he beat Santorum 38 percent to 37 percent, and nine-point loss to Santorum in Tennessee highlighted his weakness among key parts of the Republican coalition: working-class voters, evangelicals, and those who self-identify as “very conservative.”

Romney’s strong suit remains the perception that he’s best-equipped to beat President Obama in November. But for many Republican voters, that calculation does not translate into enthusiasm.

“ ’Can’t Buy Me Love’ might be the theme song of the Super Tuesday primaries: Mitt Romney prevailed on electability, but in terms of a personal connection with voters’ concerns, it was another matter,” ABC News pollster Gary Langer writes in an analysis of exit polls.

In Ohio, a crucial battleground in November's general election, 51 percent of GOP voters found the wealthy former businessman to be most electable, versus only 24 percent for Santorum. But Santorum, who highlights his family’s working-class roots, beat Romney 34 to 22 percent on the question of which candidate “best understands the problems of average Americans.”

Still, Romney’s slim overall victory in Ohio – combined with his three-point victory in Michigan a week earlier – saved him from the embarrassment of losses in major Midwestern states that would likely have thrown his campaign into a crisis. As it is, Romney vastly outspent his rivals on Super Tuesday, depleting his coffers and leading him to call for donations in his victory speech, as he did last week.

Romney’s victory in another important November battleground, Virginia, was diminished by the fact that the only other candidate to qualify for the ballot was Congressman Paul. Romney beat Paul by 19 percentage points, 59.5 percent to 40.5 percent – Paul’s strongest state among those holding primaries. (Romney won Idaho, which holds caucuses, with 62 percent.) But Paul’s strong performance, by far his best of the 10 March 6 contests, represented as much a desire to vote against Romney as a vote for Paul, analysts say.

Each candidate departed Super Tuesday with a reason to stay in the race, especially with the involvement of “super political action committee” – outside groups with unlimited funds that can support candidates through advertisements. In previous cycles, candidates like Santorum and Gingrich, in particular, might have been forced out by now with limited ability to advertise across a broad cross-section of states and no debates scheduled. But their super PACs have helped keep them in the game.

Paul’s candidacy, centered on libertarian views that at times conflict with Republican orthodoxy, is different. He has the most devoted base of supporters and raises money in regular online fundraising “money bombs,” which should allow him to compete all the way to the GOP’s convention in Tampa, Fla., in late August.

In the race for delegates, Romney has the math on his side. But Santorum technically cannot be ruled out, and as long as he can raise enough money to fund his lean operation, he is likely to stay in the race. Gingrich faces an even steeper climb, but after his victory on Tuesday in Georgia and earlier win in South Carolina, he plans to keep going – especially with other Southern states poised to vote in the next month.

Thus, as much as establishment Republicans seem eager to end a nomination season that has dragged down Romney’s reputation with the general public, the competition looks poised to continue for at least six more weeks. Kansas, Alabama, and Mississippi – none of them a good fit for Romney – vote next week. The calendar doesn’t return to more comfortable territory for Romney until April. Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia vote on April 3. New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware vote on April 24.

Also voting on April 24 is Pennsylvania , Santorum’s home turf. The last time he appeared on the ballot there, for his Senate reelection bid in 2006 – a tough year for Republicans nationally – he lost by a stunning 18 points. Assuming he’s still in the presidential race by Pennsylvania’s 2012 primary, he will face a test of how well he has rehabilitated his image. 

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