, WASHINGTON, Mar 7 – Super Tuesday hardly lived up to its billing, with its failure to crown a US Republican presidential nominee.
Instead, the 10-state nationwide nominating spectacular left Mitt Romney in much the same position as before — as a prohibitive favorite condemned to an attritional march to claim his prize, a clash with President Barack Obama.
Romney chalked up six wins, a majority of the day’s contests, but could not kill off his rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, and he again displayed the liabilities that have haunted his presidential campaign.
Once again, the leading Republican failed to fully win over the conservative activist base.
Once again, Romney shelled out millions of dollars in advertising but could not quite close the deal.
And exit poll numbers in crucial swing state Ohio showed the multimillionaire venture capitalist still struggling to connect with middle and working class voters.
Still, Super Tuesday left little doubt in analysts’ minds that Romney will be the Republican standing in the way of Obama’s second White House term.
“I think the long slog continues for Mitt Romney towards the nomination,” said Dante Scala, a professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire.
He might be battered, but Romney can at least boast that he is a survivor. And he can now claim to have won primaries in both Florida and Ohio, two swing states Republicans must win to claim the White House.
“I believe that Romney is the prohibitive favorite,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Even though the race may continue for months, I expect you will hear calls from some Republicans on other candidates to consider whether they want to drive this into the dust.”
Final figures are still unclear, but Romney was certain on Tuesday to stretch his lead in the only numbers that matter, the count of delegates to the Republican National Convention in August.
The Massachusetts governor was likely to end the night with well over 300 delegates, well ahead of those of his nearest challenger, Rick Santorum, and inching towards the 1,144 needed to win the nomination.
He won Ohio, Idaho, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, and Alaska, while Santorum picked up Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota. Gingrich snapped up his home state of Georgia.
But Romney’s failure to win Tennessee was a disappointment, as victory would have allowed him to claim that, despite his moderate past, he could attract conservative activists in a traditional “red” Republican state.
But equally, Santorum failed to fully break out of his comfort zone of social conservatives and religious voters, with his hopes of hinting at general election viability in a complex battleground dashed in a narrow Ohio loss.
Santorum also had his hopes of emerging as a genuine challenger to Obama scotched.
Voters who said their priority was finding a candidate able to beat Obama in November went for Romney 53 percent to 27 percent in Ohio, according to CNN exit polls.
But there were worrying signs deep in the numbers for Romney in Ohio, the ultimate bellwether of US presidential elections.
He captured the most votes among the wealthy, exit polls showed, but lost to Santorum among middle class voters earning between $50,000 and $100,000 and those earning less than $50,000.
That could translate into a problem in the general election, with Obama running a populist campaign designed to tar Romney as the poster boy for an economy unfairly tilted toward the very rich.
Super Tuesday became a microcosm of the whole Republican race: Romney was the strongest candidate, yet a flawed standard bearer, unable to put a lid on a contest lacking a candidate able to unite the party.
That fact will worry Republicans who fear the protracted race, dominated for weeks by social issues likely to turn off moderate voters, could harm their eventual nominee’s chances against Obama.
And Democrats relished the prolonged bloodletting, as Obama piles up campaign cash and sees his approval ratings hover near 50 percent.
Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz savored a “muddled mess” and crowed: “Romney is barely limping ahead of a weak and flawed field.”
Santorum meanwhile must now fight the impression that he is a spoiler, someone who could hurt his party’s eventual nominee but not win himself.
Gingrich can argue that he is the candidate of the conservative South, after adding his home state of Georgia to his South Carolina triumph in January.
But the former House speaker does not appear to have any viable route to the nomination.