Mitt Romney Super Tuesday glum 390.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder )
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 held a narrow lead in Ohio, the biggest prize of the 10 state contests held Tuesday, and scored convincing wins in conservative Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota.
Romney won liberal-leaning Massachusetts and Vermont and cruised to victory in Virginia, where Santorum was not on the ballot.
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 60 percent of the vote counted, Santorum led Romney by 38 percent to 37 percent.
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.
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 did not win the popular vote.
"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 US senator from Pennsylvania, has won the 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 US 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 while this year's contests could establish a clear pecking order, the race is likely to stretch until April or May under new rules designed to attract more voters and boost enthusiasm.
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.