Mitt Romney on Tuesday night narrowly won Ohio’s primary, but the small margin of victory won't erase doubts about his campaign and could prolong the GOP race for a few more months.
Romney led with 38 percent of the vote and 99 percent of precincts reporting. Rick Santorum followed with 37 percent, Newt Gingrich took 15 percent and Ron Paul had 9 percent. The Associated Press called the race.
However, the closeness of the contest won't help Romney put to rest the concerns that conservatives can't coalesce around his campaign and that he can't bring voter enthusiasm to the Republican race. It also undercut his claim to be the candidate best able to beat President Obama in the swing states that decide presidential elections.
There is also a chance there will be a recount. An automatic recount is triggered if there is less than 0.25 percent difference between the top two candidates' vote totals.
Santorum's narrow loss could be seen as a win for the former Pennsylvania senator. A strong Romney victory would have likely led to calls for Santorum to exit the race. But his second-place finish — combined with his victories in Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota — will keep his campaign going.
GOP strategists said that Romney might be in good shape in the delegate count but that the results in Ohio indicate the race will drag on — and that the only candidate celebrating Tuesday night is Obama.
"Super Tuesday was a super mess. Romney’s organization can produce results and delegates, but they are having a tough time overcoming Santorum’s passionate supporters," said GOP strategist Tyler Harber. "Super Tuesday demonstrated that the race for the Republican nomination is far from being over, and that helps keep the heat off Obama for the time being."
Romney had other wins: Virginia, Vermont, Idaho and his home state of Massachusetts. Gingrich, as expected, won his home state of Georgia.
But the former Massachusetts governor's loss in Tennessee means Romney hasn’t won a state yet in the deep South. He lost South Carolina in January and, while he won Florida’s primary, that state is not typically counted among the Southern bloc.
Romney has struggled with Tea Party supporters, very conservative voters and evangelical Christians — three groups that hold large sway over GOP primaries in many Southern states.
GOP strategist Ford O'Connell said that Romney is the only candidate who can win the delegates necessary to secure the nomination, but that he needs to show he can win in the South and grow his base. But, O'Connell noted, the Super Tuesday results had neither shown that nor helped Romney move toward a quick end to the nomination contest.
"The only way Team Obama would be happier tonight is if Romney lost Ohio," he said.
No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, and it was considered the biggest prize of the 10 contests Tuesday. Romney and Santorum spent much of their time and money there in the last week.
Romney outspent Santorum four to one in the state. But both the total spending and the difference between the candidates' individual spending was much smaller than in earlier states, the latest sign that Romney’s once-huge war chest is starting to run low. Romney and his super-PAC combined to spend almost $4 million in the state, while Santorum and his super-PAC spent approximately $1 million.
The race was tight the past couple of days. Polls released as recently as two weeks ago showed Romney trailing Santorum by double digits in Ohio but, in the lead-up to the election, both men were in a statistical tie.
Super Tuesday will also boost Romney’s delegate count. He had a substantial lead among bound delegates going into Super Tuesday — 101 more than his nearest rival, Santorum, according to a count maintained by the Republican National Committee.
Romney will win most if not all of Virginia’s delegates because Santorum and Gingrich failed to get on the ballot there. He will also pick up delegates in states where he doesn’t win because all of the states holding contests Tuesday will award their delegates proportionally.
While the roughly 419 delegates up for grabs won’t give him enough to hit the 1,144 needed for the nomination, it will make it hard for the others to catch up, particularly because the contests become winner-take-all events as of April 1.
Romney’s campaign was pushing that message this weekend.
“The bottom line is the Santorum campaign goes into Super Tuesday severely hobbled by his lack of organization and planning and systemic problems will only continue to plague him through the rest of the primary calendar,” Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, wrote Saturday in a campaign memo.
Next on the primary calendar are Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Hawaii. Romney is positioned to do well in Hawaii’s caucuses, but the Southern states could prove problematic for him.
The former governor stayed quiet most of Tuesday. He addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference by satellite and then returned to Massachusetts, where he and his wife, Ann, voted in the primary.
"I'm looking forward to being home, sleeping in our own bed tonight," Romney told reporters on the plane ride home, according to reports. "This has been a long one.”
More Super Tuesday news:
Super Tuesday results map
Romney wins Alaska
Romney wins Idaho
Santorum wins North Dakota
Santorum wins Oklahoma
Santorum wins Tennessee
Romney wins Massachusetts
Romney wins Vermont
Romney wins Virginia
Gingrich wins Georgia