Mitt Romney may have gotten the delegates he needed to hold on to his front-runner status on Super Tuesday, but the razor-thin victory he appeared to eke out in the only hotly contested state, Ohio, won't do much to restore the mantle of inevitability he once wore.
With nearly all of the vote counted, Romney had a lead of about one percentage point over Rick Santorum in the Ohio primary and was the apparent winner. Even with 100 percent of precincts reporting tonight, there still will be an estimated 40,000 votes outstanding.
For a candidate who was at one point expected to breeze through the Republican primary contests, the surprisingly close vote is almost a symbolic victory for Santorum, who continues to nag Romney at every turn despite being greatly outspent.
Exit polls found that more than half of voters in Ohio said Romney was the candidate most fit to beat President Obama. But when asked which candidate "best understands the problems of average Americans," fewer than one-quarter of voters picked Romney. About one-third chose Santorum in that category.
Ohio had been the most contested and watched vote for a week, after Romney's close primary win in Michigan, where he was born. Santorum led in the polls in Ohio until just a few days ago, but on Tuesday, the race was as good as a tie.
The other primaries that Romney won were no surprise: his home state of Massachusetts, where he was the governor; the neighboring New England state of Vermont; and battleground Virginia, where he was the only candidate on the ballot aside from Ron Paul. He also won the caucuses in Idaho. The Associated Press also projected that Romney won the Alaska caucuses.
Santorum triumphed in Tennessee, a southern state in which his conservative message has resonated, and in Oklahoma, the reddest state in the union. In both states, voters who called themselves religious and very conservative lifted Santorum over Romney, who has struggled for months to persuade the right wing of the party that he's right for them. He also won the caucuses in North Dakota.
"We have won in the West, the Midwest and the South, and we're ready to win across this country," Santorum told enthusiastic supporters in Ohio as the vote there was still being counted.
The former Pennsylvania senator added, excitedly: "In every case, we overcame the odds. Here in Ohio, still too close to call."
Santorum also pointedly needled Romney over his role in creating the Massachusetts health care program that was used as a model for the "ObamaCare" system hated by conservatives.
Romney, however, didn't mention Santorum in his speech, other than to congratulate him.
Speaking to his fans in Boston, Romney said that "I'm going to get this nomination," and he said his campaign has been focusing on tabulating the number of delegates he'll need to win it.
"We're counting the delegates for the convention, and it looks good," Romney said.
The bulk of Romney's speech was centered on denigrating Obama, mostly over his handling of the economy. He warned that "President Obama wants to raise your taxes," and suggested that Obama doesn't "tell the truth" or have "integrity."
And for the second time recently, perhaps underscoring his campaign's rapid spending of its war chest, Romney asked his supporters to "pledge your support at mittromney.com."
As expected, Newt Gingrich won the only Super Tuesday state to which he gave attention -- his home state of Georgia, which he represented as a member of Congress.