Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney widened his lead over what remains of the GOP presidential field last night, winning twice as many Super Tuesday contests as his next closest rival.
Romney scored victories in his home state of Massachusetts as well as Vermont, Virginia, Idaho and the night’s biggest prize, Ohio – where Rick Santorum led for much of the night until late returns from Cuyahoga County finally put Romney over the top.
In 2008, John McCain’s victory in Ohio over Mike Huckabee was enough to secure him the nomination. Four years later, Romney’s come-from-behind win in the Buckeye State, along with his sweep in the northeast and the west, have cemented his status as the presumptive GOP nominee. But his wins last night were not decisive enough to end what has become a much longer primary fight than anyone anticipated.
Two of Romney’s rivals also notched victories last night.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum picked up wins in Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota, but failed to prevail in the all-important state of Ohio, where weaknesses in his campaign organization may have cost him delegates and the state itself. Santorum filed only partial delegate slates in some of Ohio’s congressional districts, and filed none at all in others raising questions about his ability to match President Obama’s ground game should he win the nomination.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich scored a win in Georgia – his home state and with 76 delegates at stake, the day’s largest contest.
It was his first win since his South Carolina victory in January.
Last night during his victory speech in Atlanta, the former Speaker touted his campaign’s resiliency, vowing that his victory in Georgia signals yet another resurgence of his roller coaster campaign.
“I want you to know in the morning we are going on to Alabama. We’re going on to Mississippi. We’re going on to Kansas, and that’s just this week,” Gingrich told supporters, “Tomorrow will bring another chapter in the race for the nomination.”
Gingrich is expected to be competitive in Alabama and Mississippi, and a recent Alabama State University poll showed he and Santorum neck and neck there, with nearly a third of Republicans still undecided. The two southern states are must-win for Gingrich, who has yet to demonstrate that his campaign is viable.
The former Speaker has also come under increasing fire from Santorum and others for splitting up the “anybody but Romney” vote, which continues to make up a substantial segment of the GOP electorate. It’s a segment of voters that Ron Paul failed to capitalize on last night in Virginia, where the 12-term Texas Congressman faced Mitt Romney in a one-on-one contest (Santorum and Gingrich failed to make the ballot).
Paul drew over 40% of the vote in the commonwealth, where he did not aggressively campaign. Instead, he focused his resources on Idaho and North Dakota, where he had hoped to pick up his first primary victory. A tactical mistake, as Santorum won North Dakota easily, and Paul garnered just 18% of the vote in Idaho.
Paul’s strong “no-show” showing in Virginia, a state that Barack Obama won in the 2008 election, is not a good sign for Romney, who, with the exception of Florida has had problems connecting with voters in the southern contests. The trend continued last night with losses in Tennessee and Georgia, and recent polling shows Santorum leading Romney in North Carolina, another state Obama won in 2008.
It’s not clear if Romney will aggressively compete in the next round of southern contests in Mississippi and Alabama, or if he will take advantage of his superior campaign apparatus, as CNN’s Candy Crowley suggested last night, in friendlier, more delegate rich states like Missouri and Illinois. But he may be more competitive in the upcoming contests than some analysts believe.
Romney’s campaign is sure to get a boost from his strong Super Tuesday showing, and a Wall Street Journal / NBC poll released Monday showed a resurgence of support for the former Massachusetts governor among conservatives.
Gallup also released a poll on Monday that showed Romney increasing his national lead over Santorum, and hitting “the highest percentage any candidate has obtained since Gallup Daily tracking of the race began on Dec. 1”.
So did Mitt Romney’s Super Tuesday wins secure him nomination? Probably.
Given the financial and organizational deficiencies of the Santorum and Gingrich campaigns, will a single viable candidate emerge from the field who can stop him? Unlikely.
But in a race that has persistently defied conventional wisdom, only time will tell.