Mitt Romney wins Ohio but fails to shake off rivals

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Columbus, Ohio

Mitt Romney will be able to boast his way forward in the Republican nomination campaign today after scoring a respectable tally of states in last night’s ‘Super Tuesday’ contests. But a squeaker in Ohio where he dodged a bullet told the alternative story that he is still struggling to seal the deal with the party grassroots.

The razor thin competition in Ohio will emphasise a narrative the Romney campaign has been trying to quell for weeks, that, for all his money and organisational superiority, he is still having difficulty putting this nomination race away and dispatching his rivals and particularly Rick Santorum.  The usual clarifying effect that Super Tuesday has in primary seasons is not applicable this time.  No one is expected to drop out this morning.

Mr Santorum lost Ohio after a nail-biting count that lasted into the wee hours. But he outperformed expectations in Tennessee winning it easily and can be said to have regained some momentum from the night. He also took North Dakota and Oklahoma. Newt Gingrich avoided oblivion by winning his home state of Georgia by a good margin but made no significant inroads anywhere else.

Supporters of Mr Santorum have reason to be pleased because he took three states and came very close in Ohio in spite of being very hugely outspent by Mr Romney.

 Mr Romney had 38 per cent to Mr Santorum’s 37 per cent in Ohio and with virtually all precincts reporting, he led Santorum by about 12,000 votes out of more than 1.1 million cast. Also smiling today, meanwhile, will be Democrats. The longer the Republican nomination struggle goes on the greater the damage may be done to whoever emerges as the nominee.

And if the dust is now settling on Super Tuesday it will quickly be kicked up again with Mr Romney at risk of being defeated in all three states voting in the coming week, Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama.  Indeed Mr Romney may not score any more victories until April. 

The Romney camp can add Alaska, Vermont, Virginia, Massachusetts and Idaho to its column. That means that since this all started in early January, Romney has secured 14 states.  Santorum will have seven states with his name on them. Mr Gingrich has two and Ron Paul, the libertarian, none. 

Mr Romney will point today to the wide advantage he has in the count that matters: the distribution of delegates to the national convention in August. It is not clear he will make it to the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch it before the convention.  Analysts will also note that he can hardly have failed to win Virginia, where only he and Ron Paul, the libertarian, were on the ballot and Massachusetts and Vermont which were home territory for him.

On the other hand, it is looking nigh impossible for everyone else, including Mr Santorum, who may rue not having spent more heavily in Ohio, to jump the delegate hurdle.   If Mr Romney is a weak candidate, his rivals are surely even weaker. 

Mr Gingrich gave a characteristically punchy address to supporters in Georgia, pouring scorn notably on the “Wall Street money” – read Mr Romney – that has tried to knock him out with negative advertising. “There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through, I’m the tortoise,” he said.  “I just take one step at a time.”

Addressing supporters in Boston where he voted earlier, Mr Romney tried to project invincibility. “We are on our way,” he declared. “I am not going to let you down, I’m going get this nomination.”

Surrounded by his very large family, Mr Santorum gave a familiar stump speech in the eastern Ohio town of Steubenville, asserting that he was the candidate committed to reversing the alleged government over-reach imposed by President Barack Obama. “This is the beginning of the end of freedom in America,” he evinced. “Once the government has control of your lives, then they got you.”

If anyone will face calls to drop out now it might be Mr Paul who has a fervent following particularly among young men who respond to his calls for an end to American involvement in wars and for a dismantling of the Federal Reserve.  But there are no signals from Team Paul that he will do any such thing.

Striking in Ohio was the rural-metropolitan rift. Mr Romney appeared to have pulled out a win after trailing for hours in the vote count in the Buckeye state because he won handily in counties around the main population centres of Cincinnati, here in Columbus and on the lake around Cleveland.  Mr Santorum won far more counties than the governor but they are sparsely populated. 

Most in the Republican hierarchy will be wishing today that the delegate math was now more definitive, even though it was they who introduced a new system of proportional voting system that has prolonged the primary season.  What they probably didn’t bank on was the sheer viciousness of the four competing campaigns so far and the resulting damage it is doing to whoever emerges as the candidate to take on Mr Obama in November.

“Republicans have reached a point where they’re largely tired of Republican-on-Republican violence and are eager for a point at which a Republican nominee is making the case against President Obama rather than amplifying pretty minor differences between ourselves,” commented Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.  In unlikely moment of public hand-wringing, Barbara Bush said she had seen and heard enough.  Speaking in Dallas, she said it was the “worst campaign I’ve ever seen in my life”.

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