Super Tuesday See-Saw Tilts Toward Romney (The Note)

(Image Credit: Stephan Savoia/AP Photo)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

We think we know how this story ends, but it looks like we've got a few more, unpredictable chapters to go.

And despite one dramatic plot twist, the story of Super Tuesday turned out to be mostly what we expected. Mitt Romney walked away from the night laying claim to more delegates and winning more states than any of his GOP rivals.

But the twist was significant. In the night's most crucial contest, the primary in Ohio, Romney and Santorum found themselves in a late-night see-saw of a race that ended up ultimately tilting in Romney's favor.

By a 38 to 37 percent margin over Rick Santorum, Romney emerged in the early morning hours as the apparent winner in the Buckeye State. But Santorum's strength among conservatives, voters without a college degree and those in rural areas located in the southeast and northwest portions of the state, kept the battle for Ohio a nail-biter until the very end.

Romney's accomplishments on Tuesday night, which included wins not only in Ohio, but also in Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, and Alaska, were impressive on paper. But his string of victories were dampened by Romney's narrow margin in Ohio - the most important of all of this year's Super Tuesday states for the general election.

Top Romney aides were spinning the results this way:

"Romney didn't just win Super Tuesday - he crushed it," senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom tweeted. "Six of 10 states, amassing nearly 40% of the delegates for the nomination."

Romney won an estimated 213 out of 437 total delegates up for grabs last night.

But as ABC News pollster Gary Langer has noted:

"In all seven states holding primaries Tuesday night combined, 61 percent of voters picked either electability or experience as the top attribute they were looking for in a candidate - and 51 percent of them supported Romney. His challenge is that a sizable remaining chunk of the GOP electorate, 36 percent across these seven states, picked a different attribute as more important - either the candidate with 'strong moral character' or the 'true conservative.' And among these true believers, Romney's support plummeted to just 17 percent. Forty-six percent instead voted for Santorum, 20 percent Paul, 16 percent Gingrich."

So, while Romney desperately wants to close the book on the 2012 GOP primary, his opponents are ready to simply turn the page.

Santorum may have come up short in Ohio, but he's likely to rack up wins next week in Kansas, Alabama, and Mississippi. All three states have an electoral make-up that looks much more like Tennessee and Oklahoma - two states Santorum easily carried Tuesday night - than they do Ohio or Massachusetts.

At their Boston headquarters today, senior Romney officials plan to make their case for why the delegate math is on their side, a fact that we highlighted in yesterday's Note.

But Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who won Georgia last night, have already vowed to fight on. Santorum, in particular, looks poised to rack up victories in a number of primary and caucus states this month.

Bottom Line: The slog continues.

ABC political analysts Matthew Dowd and James Carville discussed what the outcome of Super Tuesday's primaries and caucuses mean for Romney and the rest of the filed on "'Good Morning America" today and our John Berman took a deep dive into the results:

SANTORUM CAMP ON SUPER TUESDAY: ROMNEY'S 'WORST NIGHTMARE' Although he appears to have let Ohio slip away, GOP contender Rick Santorum came out to a boisterous crowd gathered in the gym of Steubenville High School in Ohio last night, telling them, "We are in this thing!" ABC's Shushannah Walshe reports. "It is clear. We have run races all over this country, against the odds. When they thought ok he is finally finished, we keep coming back," Santorum said to cheers. "This was a big night tonight," Santorum said. "We are going to lose a few, and win a few. But as it looks right now, we are going to get at least a few gold medals and a whole lot of silver medals," using the Olympics language usually used by Mitt Romney. "We can add to Iowa, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma, and now Tennessee. We have won in the West, Midwest, South and we're ready to win across this country," Santorum said.

Hogan Gidley, Santorum's national communications director, called a head-to-head match up with Santorum Romney's "worst nightmare." He added that no matter how much money Santorum raises the campaign will stay "lean and mean." "That's the way he likes it," Gidley said, referring to Santorum. "We will continue to staff up…but we will never be the bureaucratic behemoth the Romney campaign is." Longtime Santorum senior strategist John Brabender told ABC News that he wouldn't call on Gingrich to get out of the race, but urged "conservatives to unite behind Rick Santorum" and make the race a "conservative versus a moderate."

THE GOP PRIMARY SO FAR, courtesy of ABC's Chris Good:

Romney has won 12 states:  NH, FL, NV, ME, AZ, MI, WA, VT, VA, MA, ID, AK. Assuming Romney holds on to win Ohio, he will have won 13 states. Santorum has won 6 states: (not counting Missouri's primary): IA, MN, CO, OK, TN, ND. If you grant Santorum a state win in Missouri, he has won seven states. Gingrich has won two states: SC, GA.  Paul has won no states.

Latest ABC News delegate estimate, with 1144 needed to win the nomination:

Romney: 397

Santorum: 175

Gingrich: 104

Paul: 45

Delegates from Super Tuesday (393 estimated out of 437 total delegates):

Romney: 213

Santorum: 84

Gingrich: 74

Paul: 22


FROM THE EXITS POLLS: DRILLING DOWN IN OHIO. ABC News pollster Gary Langer analyzes the results in Ohio where a diverse mix of voters shaped an excruciatingly close contest. Romney leaned on his standing as the most electable candidate; Santorum honed his appeal to conservatives and more religious voters, as well as prevailing on the common touch. In other states, where the electorate was more homogenous - either much more conservative, as in Oklahoma and Tennessee, or much less so, as in Massachusetts and Vermont - the story was a different one. Ohio's demographic and attitudinal diversity earned it its battleground reputation. Beyond the electability-empathy division, a potentially key split was by gender: Exit poll results found an even division between Santorum and Romney among men. By contrast, Romney held a 17-point lead among non-married women - perhaps marking Santorum's controversial comments on some women's issues. Politically, nearly seven in 10 voters in Ohio were Republicans, down from their share in the state's primary in 2008 but more than last week's Michigan primary; a quarter were independents. While Romney generally has done better with mainline Republicans than with non-Republicans this year, the margin in Ohio's exit poll was very close. More from Langer's analysis of the exit poll results across the Super Tuesday battlegrounds:


VIDEO OF THE DAY: POLITICAL PUNCH. Jake Tapper talks to Matt Flavin, departing senior adviser to the president on veteran affairs - and a veteran himself of Iraq and Afghanistan - about what it's like being a part of the "other" one percent and how frustrating it can be to be back home. WATCH:



MORE GOP HAND-WRINGING OVER DRAWN-OUT PRIMARY. Politico's Jonathan Martin reports: "What worries Republicans is that the cost of the extended primary season isn't just financial, but also can be measured in the impact of the beating Romney is taking from, and administering to, his GOP rivals: plunging poll numbers with independent voters and a focus on issues that won't help the party recapture the White House. Romney supporters have begun talking openly about the bruising the front-runner has received. 'This is kind of a painful chapter,' said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). 'There is a point at which we're going to have to conclude if we're going to win in the fall we have to get behind a nominee and start focusing on our real opponent.' … Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has not endorsed in the primary, said the general election will look considerably different once the party has picked a nominee. 'That moment is going to come, everybody just needs to relax,' said Rubio of his fellow Republicans. 'We're psyching ourselves out a little bit.' But even as he sought to calm nerves, the rookie senator acknowledged that there is consternation on the right and said he'd like to shift to the focus to the president. 'There's a lot of noise on the Republican side because our candidates are saying things that aren't very flattering about each other,' he said."

RON PAUL COMES UP SHORT, BUT PRESSES ON. Presidential hopeful Ron Paul's hopes for finally notching an elusive first win of the 2012 presidential season were dashed Tuesday when all three states on which he was betting handed him defeat, ABC's Jason Volack reports. Paul is the only candidate who has failed to win an election contest, including the 10 Super Tuesday states. But the Paul campaign remained optimistic despite the odds stacked against him. "This country is ready and raring," Paul told several hundred supporters at a North Dakota caucus site Tuesday in Fargo before losing the state to Rick Santorum. The Texas congressman, 76, is sticking with his strategy of focusing on caucus states and some open primaries. He had placed big bets on three of the Super Tuesday states: Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota. Rick Santorum won North Dakota and Mitt Romney won Idaho and Alaska, where Paul visited this weekend. He is the only candidate who visited the state, while the others sent delegates or held teleconferences. Although Paul admitted that his chances of winning the Republican nomination "are slim," he shows no sign of slowing down. "While other candidates are focused solely on the beauty contests to get the headlines, we're undertaking a comprehensive strategy that I am confident can lead to the nomination," Paul said in a statement released Monday.

OBAMA CAMPAIGN ROLLS OUT BIDEN AS SURROGATE-IN-CHIEF. Vice President Joe Biden  next week will officially begin transitioning to his role as the leading surrogate for President Obama's re-election campaign, attending the first of a series of public events in battleground states aimed at shaping the general election narrative, ABC's Jake Tapper and Devin Dwyer note. Biden will deliver a campaign speech in Ohio, where he will frame the key issues Democrats see as defining the 2012 race, a campaign official told ABC News.  The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, could not confirm the date or the issues to be addressed but said more details would be forthcoming. He will give three other speeches over the next several weeks, the official said. All will be free and open to the public, marking a new phase in the campaign's roll-out and effort to raise Biden's profile. Biden, who the campaign has planned to feature prominently in its outreach to voters in blue- collar communities, has made two trips to Ohio this year, in addition to visits to Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa and New Hampshire. The choice of Ohio as the site of Biden's first event underscores the importance of the state to Team Obama's electoral map.

NOTED: ABC's Devin Dwyer reports that an overnight e-mail blast from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina is the latest sign the Obama campaign may be a bit uneasy with their financial position vis-a-vis the GOP, or at least wanting to create the impression.  "Too many Obama supporters are falling into a trap," Messina writes. "They're waiting to donate until we have a clear opponent. There's too much at stake, and not enough time, to be doing that." Messina then warns that no matter who is the GOP nominee they'll seek to "turns back the clock on women's rights and health care" - a nod to the recent contraception debate.  The Obama campaign has raised more than $150 million (to Romney's $63 million-plus), but fell off pace with its record 2008 haul for the first time in January.

FROM OBAMA'S PRESS CONFERENCE:   ON GOP 'BEATING THE DRUMS OF WAR' President Obama yesterday rebuffed criticisms that he has been weak on Iran, accusing the Republicans vying to challenge him in the fall of "beating the drums of war" amid rising concerns about the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, ABC's Mary Bruce notes. "What's said on the campaign trail, you know, those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities," the president said at his first White House news conference of the year. "They're not commander in chief." The president warned that critics of his Iran policy, "folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk," are neglecting the true costs of war. "This is not a game.  And there's nothing casual about it," the president said. "We don't play politics with it. When we have in the past, when we haven't thought it through and it gets wrapped up in politics, we make mistakes." Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney has accused the Obama administration of having "dawdled" with sanctions against Iran.

ABC's Jake Tapper asked President Obama what having "Israel's back" means. Here's the president's answer:



@SalenaZitoTrib : In one week Santorum lost 12 pts in Ohio. 12 pts of Middle Class Reagan Democrat voters. No one will lead with that fact. #Supertuesday

@tackettdc : Resident genius  @greggiroux dissects Ohio vote. Not good for Romney #2012

@ByronYork : In '08, facing Huckabee and Paul, McCain won 60% of Ohio vote. Facing Santorum, Gingrich and Paul, Romney won 38%.

@HotlineAlberta : Robbed of a  #SuperTuesday bounce:headlines on several major metro dailys this a.m. say "Romney takes 3 states" (he won 6)

@mpoindc : Romney: "I'm prepared to fight all the way to become the nominee … We've got a very strong lead in terms of delegates …"



-Rick Santorum heads to Kansas for an afternoon rally at Harvest Graphics in Lenexa. In the evening, Santorum will hold two events in Tupelo and Jackson Mississippi.

-Newt Gingrich takes his campaign to Alabama for three rallies in Montgomery, Pell City, and Birmingham.

-Mitt Romney's holds a private fundraiser in Boston, Massachusetts.

-Ron Paul's is in Lake Jackson, Texas with no public events.

-ABC's Josh Haskell (@HaskellBuzz)


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