Super Tuesday

03.07.12

Romney Edges Santorum in Ohio Cliffhanger on Super Tuesday

The frontrunner hangs on to win the big prize while losing Tennessee and Oklahoma to Santorum. Howard Kurtz on why Mitt can’t wrap it up. Plus, Michael Tomasky on what Mitt should do next, Patricia Murphy on Newt Gingrich’s win in Georgia, and more Daily Beast columnists weigh in on the results.

Mitt Romney hung on to win the Ohio primary in a nail-biting finish early Wednesday morning, but Rick Santorum stayed on his heels by beating the battered frontrunner in Tennessee and Oklahoma.

romney-speech-box
Stephan Savoia / AP

The split verdict on Super Tuesday, the biggest day of the Republican race, means Romney will still have Santorum to kick around, and Newt Gingrich for that matter. Gingrich stayed alive by winning his home state of Georgia.

Given that Romney badly outspent him in Ohio, it was a morale boost for Santorum’s guerrilla outfit to fight the former governor to a photo finish on a day when voters in 11 states went to the polls.

The outcome raised fresh doubts about Romney’s ability to win in the South, with Santorum’s Tennessee triumph fueled by evangelical voters. And in a more fundamental sense, the stylistic contrast between the two made Romney seem scripted and Santorum scrappy.

Given that Romney would have been derided as a political weakling had he lost Ohio to Santorum, his razor-thin victory there was a noteworthy accomplishment; a win is a win in politics.

Romney is nothing if not resilient. But there is still something distinctly unimpressive about his 2012 performance, his inability to close the deal against an underfunded former senator who got trounced in his last reelection bid.

He always seems to do just well enough to stay ahead of the pack, but not well enough to convince the party that it’s time to close ranks behind him. He does well one week and stumbles the next. He projects competence but does not inspire.

In terms of delegates, which is the Romney camp’s preferred frame, their man had a strong night. Never mind that he won Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich failed to make the ballot, and Massachusetts, where he was governor. Romney added small-state wins in Vermont and Idaho, but under proportional representational rules he will capture a haul of delegates even in the states he lost. Indeed, despite Santorum’s near-miss in Ohio, he did not file full delegate slates in more than half its districts.

The back-to-back-to-back televised speeches were instructive. While Gingrich’s speech was mostly about him and the media (plus gas prices), Santorum delivered perhaps his most effective oration to date. “I want so badly to return the power to you in this country,” he said. Santorum gained passion as he spoke of an overarching federal government, the evils of Obamacare, and the need for liberty in America. And he landed a strong blow against Romney by capitalizing on new evidence that the former Massachusetts governor had indeed supported a health-care mandate more recently than he has acknowledged.

Romney, by contrast, gave a smooth but workmanlike speech that barely contained a personal touch. He struck a Reaganesque chord by speaking of voters he had met on the trail, some of them with “heartbreaking” stories as they struggle in the Obama economy. But then he pivoted to his standard indictment of the president, botching the key soundbite about how Obama is “out of ideas” and “we’re going to run him out of the White House.”

Ohio was tailor-made for the former head of Bain Capital. More than half the GOP voters surveyed in exit polls deemed the economy the most important issue, and nearly a third cited the federal deficit. But on the question of who’s better able to understand the problems of average Americans, Santorum edged Romney, 33 to 22 percent.

It’s easy to forget the degree to which Santorum was viewed as the longest of long shots for most of this campaign as others—Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Gingrich—took turns as the leading anti-Romney alternative. The press mostly ignored the Pennsylvania Republican until shortly before he managed to edge Romney in Iowa, according to a later recount.

But Santorum faded again as his ragtag team seemed unable to capitalize on his early success—until he stunned the political world with that hat trick of winning Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Had Santorum upended Romney in Michigan, he would have utterly transformed the race. But close doesn’t count in politics.

Santorum probably erred by playing up culture-war issues, his campaign suddenly consumed by talk of birth control, religion, JFK, and prenatal testing. When Santorum returned at least partially to focusing on manufacturing jobs, he seemed to regain the traction he had lost.

Despite his periodic setbacks, Romney remains the favorite to win a months-long slog to the nomination. But with polls showing the vitriolic campaign hurting the GOP, the clear winner may be Barack Obama, who held a news conference Tuesday to try to steal a little of the political thunder.

Romney appeared to right his campaign last week with a slender victory in his native state of Michigan, widely described by the pundits as “winning ugly.” Despite his cache of delegates and dramatic finish in Ohio, Super Tuesday was less than a pretty day for Romney.