March 6, 2012 -- 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.
In a victory speech in Atlanta, Gingrich called himself the "tortoise" who will win the nomination and mocked the attention given to Santorum after the ex-senator won three primaries in states that the other candidates had mostly ignored.
"The news media, once again, desperate to prove Gingrich was wrong, suddenly said, 'Ah, now we have the person who's going to be the non-Romney,' " Gingrich said.
Making his pitch to his supporters, Gingrich called himself "the one candidate who can debate Barack Obama," drawing on one of his noteworthy strengths that has been evident in the nearly two dozen GOP primary debates.
As voters in 10 states made their picks for the Republican nomination tonight, Romney was working to write the final chapter of the primary season on the biggest single day of contests in the race.
Romney, wearing the crown of official front-runner after recent wins in Michigan, Arizona and Washington, has been battling for the nomination for longer than it once seemed he would be. His main rival, Santorum, emerged from nowhere first in Iowa and then in a string of states last month as the "conservative alternative" to Romney.
While Santorum has been successful in riding occasional crests of momentum, "Super Tuesday" is more about the number of delegates who will be awarded to the candidates, and Romney appeared poised to be in the best position after the dust settles.
The candidates are fighting for 437 delegates just today, more than all the delegates that have been won already. Romney is in the lead with 203, and Santorum is in a solid second place with 92. The race ends once a candidate gets 1,144.
Georgia offers the most delegates in today's voting with 76. Other big states are Ohio (66), Tennessee (58), Virginia (49) and Oklahoma (43). Three other states voting in caucuses today award fewer --- Idaho, North Dakota and Alaska.
Though Santorum trails Romney in delegates, he is counting on a resurgence of momentum to carry him through the rest of the primary so he can retain his status as a viable candidate.
"We've won races all over this country against the odds," Santorum said tonight. "When they thought, 'OK, he's finally finished,' we keep coming back."
Paul was the first candidate of the night to speak. He told his supporters in Fargo, N.D., hours before polls closed that "the rest of the candidates represent the status quo."
Making a rare cameo on the Super Tuesday stage was the president himself, who called his first press conference of the year this afternoon, perhaps not by coincidence.
Asked vaguely to opine on Romney and the happenings within the GOP today, Obama gave his shortest answer: "Good luck tonight."
He added: "Really."
The nomination battle is unlikely to actually end after the votes are all counted by Wednesday morning, but Romney is expected to be in better position with a comfortable lead in delegates, even though his front-runner armor is dinged up because of the fight in Ohio.
If the GOP primary becomes a two-man race between Romney and Santorum, the scramble for delegates will be similar to the delegate hunt that characterized the 2008 Democratic primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton -- a long-fought campaign that delved frequently into arcane tactics understood by few.
If that's the case, Romney's win in Virginia would be potentially huge, because neither Santorum nor Gingrich, who didn't get enough signatures to get on the ballot, are eligible to get any delegates.
"He'll come out of Super Tuesday with a much more commanding lead than he went into it with," Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has endorsed Romney, said on Fox News this afternoon.
McDonnell, a potential candidate for vice president, said he wished Santorum and Gingrich were on the ballot to make the vote more competitive, but that "if you're going to be the president of the United States, you ought to be able to get 10,000 signatures."
"It's unfortunate they didn't make it, but that's the rules," McDonnell added.
Still, the numbers game reflects the long shift that Romney has made from the seemingly inevitable nominee to a student of delegate math. While he's still the favorite to capture the nomination, his focus on the general election has been distracted by Santorum's and Gingrich's alternate rises.
Ideally for Romney, Super Tuesday will bring about a hint of finality to the primary campaign and let him fix his sights squarely on Obama.
But many of the next big primary contests are in the South, a weakness for Romney and a strength for Santorum (and Gingrich). Kansas, with 40 delegates, votes on Saturday; Alabama, with 50, and Mississippi, with 40, vote next Tuesday; and Missouri, with 52, votes March 17.
"If you don't win the South, you don't win the nomination," Sue Everhart, the chairwoman of Georgia's Republican Party, told ABC News.