Romney and Santorum in stalemate on Super Tuesday
Mitt Romney failed to land a knockout blow against rival Rick Santorum on “Super Tuesday,” raising the prospect of a drawn-out battle for the Republican presidential nomination between the party’s establishment and its grassroots conservatives.
Santorum and Romney were neck-and-neck in Ohio, the biggest prize of the 10 state contests held on Tuesday.
Romney won liberal-leaning Massachusetts and Vermont and cruised to victory in Virginia, where Santorum was not on the ballot.
Santorum scored convincing wins in conservative Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota.
Newt Gingrich won his home state of Georgia, while results from Idaho and Alaska were expected in the coming hours. More than 400 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the party’s nomination are at stake.
All eyes were on Ohio, a traditional bellwether state that could play an important role in deciding the Republican nominee to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama on Nov. 6.
With 85 percent of the vote counted, Santorum and Romney were tied with 37 percent of the vote each. A Romney aide predicted victory and said votes from their strongholds had not been counted yet.
Exit polls showed that Ohio voters viewed Romney as more likely to defeat Obama, but thought Santorum was more sympathetic to average Americans’ concerns. Santorum won more support among middle-income voters who make up the bulk of the electorate.
“I think Santorum is believable, wholesome. When he talks, his ideas are genuine. I don’t put any stock in Romney,” said Lonnie Vestal, 36, a pastor from Mason, Ohio.
STRUGGLE TO CONNECT
Romney, who built a fortune of at least $200 million as a private-equity executive, has struggled to connect with conservatives and blue-collar voters. A convincing win in Ohio would have put many of those doubts to rest, but a loss could point to an extended, state-by-state battle.
Romney looked likely to extend his lead among delegates even if he does not win Ohio, as Santorum’s thinly staffed campaign failed to qualify for delegates in several swaths of Ohio. Under new rules designed to lengthen the nominating battle, most states at this stage of the process award delegates on a proportional basis.
“We’re counting up the delegates for the convention and it looks good,” Romney told supporters in his home state of Massachusetts.
Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has won support of religious conservatives thanks to his opposition to gay marriage and his views on other hot-button social issues. His controversial comments about birth control and the role of religion have alienated moderate-leaning voters, and Romney has pelted him with negative ads.
“We’re going to get at least a couple of gold medals and a whole passel full of silver medals,” he told supporters. “We’ve won in the West, the Midwest in the South and we’re going to win across this country.”
Gingrich’s strategy of focusing on southern states did not pay off in Tennessee and Oklahoma, but he vowed to stay in the race after his Georgia win.
“There are lots of bunny rabbits to run through, I am the tortoise. I just take one step at a time,” Gingrich said.
Ron Paul, a U.S. representative from Texas known for his libertarian views, hopes to score his first win in Alaska.
In recent presidential campaigns, the Super Tuesday wave of primaries and caucuses has often settled the Republican race. But this year’s race is likely to stretch until April or May – or possibly until the last contest on June 26 – under new rules designed to attract more voters and boost enthusiasm.
But recent polls indicate the lengthy primary season may actually be alienating voters. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Tuesday showed that more voters view the candidates negatively than positively. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on Monday found that 40 percent of voters view the Republican Party less favorably than they did before voting started in January.
Additional reporting by Sam Youngman in Massachusetts, Lily Kuo and Emily Stephenson in Washington and Colleen Jenkins in Atlanta; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Vicki Allen