Romney wins Ohio; he and Santorum split 8 other states

Posted: March 07, 2012

The Republican presidential race went coast-to-coast Tuesday as Mitt Romney took the biggest prize among the 10 states in play, although the day brought mixed results that did little to clarify the party's muddled nomination picture.

Romney narrowly defeated Rick Santorum in Ohio, the most important in terms of political symbolism, in a contest not called till early Wednesday. But Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich split nine other states, giving each man some positive news to spin.

The bottom line: It looks as if the fight will go on for a while longer.

Besides Ohio, Romney won Virginia, Vermont, Idaho, Alaska and his home state of Massachusetts, where he had been governor. Conservative insurgent Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, carried Tennessee and Oklahoma, with overwhelming support from evangelical Christian voters, and also won the caucuses in North Dakota. Former House Speaker Gingrich won Georgia, which he had represented in Congress for two decades.

Regardless, Romney seemed likely to win a majority of the 419 delegates at stake in Tuesday's primaries and caucuses. Aides said his campaign was best positioned, by virtue of organization and money, to grind it out over the long haul and accumulate the 1,144 delegates necessary to win the nomination.

Much of the attention had focused on Ohio, the sprawling Midwestern battleground state that is both industrial and rural - and full of the working-class voters whom Republicans need to defeat President Obama in the fall. In addition, Ohio has voted for the eventual GOP nominee in every primary since 1972.

Santorum started off with a double-digit lead in Ohio, but Romney came out of Michigan's Feb. 28 primary with momentum and then caught up, as he and his allies outspent Santorum nearly 4-1 on television. Romney and the super PAC supporting him, Restore Our Future, spent $4.21 million to $1.19 million for Santorum's campaign, an allied super PAC and the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List.

Campaigning in Ohio, Santorum touted his roots across the state line in a Pennsylvania steel town, saying he would seek to restore American manufacturing, but he was pulled into discussions of social issues, such as contraception and the separation of church and state.

He also argued that Romney was not an "authentic conservative," repeatedly blasting his health-care law in Massachusetts, which was a model for the federal law pushed by Obama, particularly in its requirement that individuals buy health insurance.

Romney stayed focused on the economy, boiling his message down to a new slogan, "more jobs, less debt, smaller government," and stressed that Santorum had never met a payroll in the private sector, as he had.

"Tonight we've taken one more step toward restoring the promise of America," Romney told supporters during his election-night reception in Boston. "Tomorrow we wake up and we start again. And the next day we do the same. And so it will go, day by day, step by step, door to door, heart to heart."

Gingrich said his Georgia win gave him the rationale to go on, after having been written off at least twice by pundits.

"The national elites had decided a Gingrich presidency was so frightening they had to kill it early, but you wouldn't let them," he told supporters in Atlanta. "I am the tortoise. I just take one step at a time."

Next up are caucuses Saturday in Kansas, and primaries in Alabama and Mississippi next Tuesday.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian, had yet to win a nominating contest. He had hoped to do well in caucus states. Alaska, where polls closed at midnight Philadelphia time, would have been his last chance Tuesday.

Santorum, speaking Tuesday evening in a high school gymnasium in Steubenville, Ohio, not far from Pittsburgh, said he was fighting for "the towns that have been left behind" and the hard-working people in them who made America great.

"We're going to win some, and we're going to lose some," he said. "It looks like we're going to get at least a couple of gold medals and a whole passel of silver medals."

In Ohio, Romney won older, better-educated, and upscale voters, those with incomes over $100,000 a year, according to exit polls, repeating the pattern from earlier contests.

Santorum won, narrowly, among middle-income voters, and among voters who described themselves as "very conservative," who made up about 31 percent of the electorate. He also bested Romney 47 percent to 31 percent among white evangelical Christians, a group that was 46 percent of the Ohio electorate.

As in other states, Santorum won among those who said a candidate's character and ideological purity were most important, while Romney was the overwhelming choice of those who said the most important factor was beating Obama.

"Clearly, the Republican base doesn't believe Romney - this thing is wide open," said Democratic strategist Daniel F. McElhatton. "Santorum is authentic and believable. Romney is polished and not believable."

Barely four in 10 Ohio primary voters said they were strongly behind their candidate, and turnout was on track to be lower than it was in the 2008 GOP primary there, a pattern that has held true in most of the party's contests so far. Some analysts suggest this reflects lack of enthusiasm for the choices among Republicans.

Romney had been poised regardless of the Ohio outcome to gain most of its convention delegates. That's because Santorum's campaign - understaffed even before he caught fire nationally - did not file a full slate of delegates in nine of the state's 16 congressional districts. The majority of Ohio's 66 GOP delegates are awarded by district.

Some party leaders have increasingly voiced worry that the drawn-out primary campaign is bleeding Romney, still viewed as the most likely nominee, of money and is damaging the GOP brand.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll this week, for instance, found that 40 percent of adults surveyed said the primary had left them with a less-favorable opinion of the Republican Party. Romney's growing unfavorable rating is worse, in that and other surveys, than the rating for nearly all recent presidential nominees at a similar point in the campaign.

But in a recent memo, Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer pushed back against the narrative, pointing to Gallup polling that shows Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats - 53 percent to 45 percent - about voting for president this year.

"In a few more months, the primary will seem like a distant memory," Spicer wrote. "Ultimately, one of the four current candidates will be the Republican nominee. Our party will then unite 100 percent around him. The momentum and enthusiasm of the primaries will carry us forward toward victory in November and on to the White House."

Neil Smith, a voter in Chillicothe, Ohio, who was leaning toward Santorum, would agree with that analysis.

"I would vote for a cup of coffee," he said last week, "before I'd vote for Obama."


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"

at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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