STEUBENVILLE, OHIO - Averting what would have been a disastrous loss in a heavily contested state, Mitt Romney pulled out a razor thin victory over Rick Santorum in Ohio’s primary. While he survived a heart stopping close call, Romney still fell short of the dominant Super Tuesday performance his campaign was hoping would break the race open.
On the delegate front, Romney is likely to leave with some legitimate gains. Early returns on Super Tuesday gave expected victories to Romney in Vermont, Massachusetts, Idaho, and Virginia, where he and Ron Paul were the only candidates on the ballot, and Newt Gingrich in Georgia. Rick Santorum held off a late surge from multiple rivals to projected wins in Tennessee, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.
But the big question is about narrative: will tonight be enough to put an end to a long primary slog that just about everyone agrees is hurting Romney who will, unless something incredible happens, be the Republican opponent for Obama in the fall? Romney, whose general poll numbers are at almost historically toxic levels for a frontrunning candidate, needs this primary to end — fast.
His rivals want it to continue. Rick Santorum spoke before the race in Ohio had been called, saying, “This was a big night tonight lots of states. We’re gonna win a few, we’re gonna lose a few, but as it looks right now we’re gonna get at least a couple of gold medals, and a whole passel full of silver medals.”
At the very least, the results will almost certainly keep Santorum in the race for the indefinite future. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who switched his allegiance from Romney to Santorum last month, said the closeness of the race gave Santorum a serious shot to turn things into a clear two-man race — much to his surprise.
“In my heart I thought the last couple of days we would lose,” DeWine said, saying he was disheartened after receiving five robocalls in as many hours attacking Santorum. “That means you have so much money you don’t know what to do with it.”
He added that the most important development was Romney’s continued struggle to win the votes of working class Republicans, relying instead on large margins with wealthier voters to power his campaign in key states so far.
“I think in the long run, what makes Rick Santorum strong is his blue collar roots and an ability to connect with blue collar voters,” he said. “People say ‘He seems like one of us.’ Nobody says that about Romney.”
The crowd at Santorum’s rally in a high school gym in Steubenville, near the border of his home state of Pennsylvania, went wild as the networks showed Santorum securing victories in multiple states and at one point taking a lead in Ohio. Supporters gushed over their candidate even as they braced themselves for a tough road ahead against the better organized and resourced Romney.
“I’m plenty surprised by the polls now,” DJ Peckens, 24, a law student from Yorkville, OH, said after Santorum finished his speech. “It’s hard to say what happens from here, things change daily, but it’s important to have a good showing tonight.”
Many in the highly religious crowd said Santorum’s open devotion to social issues like abortion and allowing religious employers to deny worker’s coverage for birth control was a crucial factor in their support. Romney, by contrast, has devoted virtually the entirety of his speeches this week to the economy and national security.
For David Vogel, a local Catholic singer and anti-abortion activist who challenged Bill Clinton on the issue at an appearance at the same gym during the 2008 Democratic primaries, Santorum’s performance on Tuesday was just the antidote.
“I waited four years for this,” he said. “That God would bring someone truthful and honest who respects the value of life and faith.”
Still, he admitted it would take plenty more prayer to get Santorum across the finish line: “It’s tough. He’s not on the ballot in Virginia and then there’s Romney’s money — he has a battle, but I hope and pray to god that the election is not not won by being bought.”
Santorum will have his status as the lone Romney challenger tested this month. A potential sign of trouble for Romney and Santorum alike is in Georgia, which networks called for Newt Gingrich almost immediately, suggesting a strong performance. While it’s not surprising Gingrich won given his close ties to the state, which he represented in Congress, the victory is a crucial jolt to a campaign that had fallen into dire straits. After a huge surge with a win in South Carolina last month, he’s been largely sidelined as Santorum’s taken over as the leading anti-Romney candidate. But don’t be surprised to see Gingrich make a play — yet again — for that title in the coming days thanks to a friendly schedule. March includes races in Southern states like Alabama and Missippi (March 13) and Louisiana (March 24) where he has the potential to make a run. If Santorum can’t capitalize on his Tuesday performance by consolidating the conservative vote, Gingrich has plenty of potential for another comeback.
Tennessee presented an opportunity for Romney to cement his dominance over Santorum as polls showed him surprisingly close in the final days to what was considered one of the former Pennsylvania Senator’s most promising states. But Santorum held off late momentum from both Romney and Gingrich to pull out a victory, according to CBS and NBC projections.
If ever there was a show of the limitations of Gingrich and Santorum it’s Virginia, where neither qualified for the ballot. This was especially embarrassing for Gingrich, who currently lives in the state. Romney romped to an easy win there, with networks calling it as soon as polls closed. Santorum faces similar problems in the night’s biggest prize, Ohio, having failed to get delegates on the ballot in several Congressional districts. Romney erased a polling lead in the final days in that state as well as Tennessee, another favorable state to Santorum, giving him an opportunity to blunt his momentum much as he did with Gingrich in Florida.
Before the polls even closed, Team Santorum told reporters that their guy is staying in until the convention. Gingrich’s big (but not surprising) win in Georgia means you can expect him to stick around, too.
The narrative is basically written now: Romney well positioned in terms of resources and delegate math to be his party’s nominee. But with Santorum and Gingrich around, another narrative will also be close at hand: Romney’s an extremely weak frontrunner.
What Romney needs is to pivot away from these primaries and toward uniting the GOP behind him as soon as possible. That way he can try to shift the conversation away from the social issues he — and most of of the rest of the GOP establishment — would rather not discuss and back toward more favorable issues.
But with Santorum and Gingrich around, and Gingrich maybe poised for another surge, that shift will be harder to pull off. And that means more weeks of the long, slogging primary that’s dragged down Romney’s favorables and given Democrats attack line after attack line.