By Paul Steinhauser and Tom Cohen, CNN
Mitt Romney won five Super Tuesday states including the big prize of Ohio, while Rick Santorum took three states and Newt Gingrich grabbed a vital triumph in Georgia, CNN projected.
The showing made it a good night for Romney, padding his front-running delegate total, but lacked the convincing showing he needed to demonstrate his ability to generate support among diehard conservatives.
In Ohio, Romney took a late lead of more than 11,000 votes over Santorum with 97.8% of the vote counted, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s official tally, and it was clear Santorum would be unable to overcome the difference.
Santorum’s victories showed his continuing strength among conservative voters, while Gingrich’s win in the state that sent him to Congress allows him to keep his campaign going.
The Santorum victories — in Tennessee and Oklahoma primaries, and in North Dakota’s caucuses — also hurt Gingrich’s Southern strategy after the former House speaker’s triumphs in South Carolina and now Georgia.
“It looks we’re going to get at least a couple of gold medals, and a whole passel full of silver medals,” Santorum told cheering supporters in Ohio, where he was running slightly ahead of Romney in a race too close to call, with 70% of precincts reporting.
Romney, meanwhile, easily won as expected in Virginia, Vermont and Massachusetts, the state where he served as governor and considers home. CNN later projected a Romney win in Idaho’s Republican caucuses
Some early results from contests in 10 states that put 419 delegates up for grabs were expected, based on pre-primary polls and the fact that two of the candidates — Santorum and Gingrich — weren’t on the Virginia ballot.
For Gingrich, who represented Georgia’s sixth congressional district for two decades, the victory provided a new boost after a string of defeats since his only other primary triumph in South Carolina.
“Thank you Georgia! It is gratifying to win my home state so decisively to launch our March Momentum,” Gingrich said Tuesday night in a Twitter post.
“There’s lots of bunny rabbits that run through,” Gingrich later told supporters in Georgia. “I’m the tortoise.”
A Gingrich campaign source also told CNN on condition of not being identified that the former House speaker will become the third GOP candidate to get Secret Service protection starting Wednesday. Romney and Santorum already have that protection.
Romney entered Super Tuesday off of three wins last week and a growing lead in the delegate count toward the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination to face President Barack Obama in November.
In remarks to supporters later Tuesday night in Boston, Romney focused on Obama in trying to sound like the presumptive nominee.
Citing unemployment that remains above 8%, Romney said the figure is just an “inconvenient statistic” in the eyes of the Obama administration.
“But those numbers are more than data on a spreadsheet; they are worried families and anxious faces,” said Romney, who was interrupted repeatedly by chants and cheers. “And tonight, I’d like to say to each of them: You have not been forgotten. We will not leave you behind. Our campaign is on the move, and real change is finally on the way.”
Romney also signaled a continued battle for his campaign.
“Tonight we’ve taken one more step towards restoring the promise of America,” he said. “Tomorrow we wake up and we start again. And the next day we’ll do the same. And so it will go, day by day, step by step, door by door, heart to heart.”
Santorum also focused on Obama, saying the president’s policies threatened the individual liberty of Americans. He also targeted Romney for his health care law in Massachusetts, arguing it was the model for Obama’s federal health care reforms detested by conservatives.
“I’ve never been for a mandate at a state or a federal level,” Santorum said in challenging the requirement in both the Massachusetts and federal laws for people to have health coverage.
Tuesday was the biggest single day of the primary season, and included showdowns in several states that will determine the ability of Santorum, Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul to blunt Romney’s momentum toward what many believe will be his inevitable nomination.
Georgia had the most delegates up for grabs on Tuesday but Ohio, because of its status as a crucial battleground state in the general election, is considered the main prize.
Gingrich made clear he needed to win Georgia — the state he represented in Congress for two decades — to keep his campaign alive. The CNN/ORC poll showed him with a solid lead at 47% support among likely GOP primary voters, compared to Romney at 24%, Santorum at 15% and Paul at 9%.
Romney’s campaign was bolstered by endorsements from leading conservatives this week including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
The endorsements indicated a growing push in the Republican Party to show Romney can win the trust of conservatives, despite concerns that he is too moderate.
Thanks to a sweep of contests in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on February 7, Santorum went from a long-shot candidate to a co-front-runner, but until Tuesday he had not had a victory since.
Santorum and Gingrich were not on the ballot in Virginia because they failed to get enough signatures to qualify, and Santorum was not eligible to win some delegates in Ohio because his campaign failed to file required paperwork in some congressional districts and didn’t submit a full list of delegates in others.
Paul has focused his efforts on winning delegates in the caucus states so that he can wield influence at the Republican convention in August.
Besides Ohio, citizens in Cantor’s Virginia and Coburn’s Oklahoma participated in primaries, as did voters in Georgia, Tennessee, Vermont and Massachusetts, while Idaho, North Dakota and Alaska held caucuses.
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