published Thursday, March 1st, 2012

On to Super Tuesday: Santorum, Romney battle on

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney celebrate Tuesday night's primary wins in Michigan and Arizona.
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney celebrate Tuesday night's primary wins in Michigan and Arizona.
Photo by Associated Press.

By DAVID ESPO

AP Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON — A victorious Mitt Romney and runner-up Rick Santorum both claimed satisfaction from the close Michigan primary on Wednesday as they swiftly shifted their duel for the Republican presidential nomination to Ohio and the rest of next week’s delegate-rich Super Tuesday contests.

Campaigning in Bexley, Ohio, Romney promised “more jobs, less debt and a smaller government” if he wins the nomination and defeats President Barack Obama in the fall. “Interestingly, the people who said that the economy and jobs were their No. 1 issue, they voted for me, overwhelmingly” in the Michigan primary, he said.

Santorum saw the events of the previous 24 hours differently, having won half of the 30 delegates in his rival’s home state primary even though he lost the popular vote. “We had a much better night in Michigan than maybe was first reported,” he said, in Tennessee.

While Santorum contended the race to pick an opponent for Democrat Obama was down to two men, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul had other ideas as they set their own priorities for the 10 Super Tuesday contests.

That made Washington’s caucuses on Saturday something of a campaign way-station, worth 40 delegates but squeezed in between two big primary nights.

The pattern of the candidates’ schedules underscored a shift in the nature of the race, away from one-or-two-state nights where political momentum counted for much, and into a period of multiple contests, where the object is to pile up delegates in pursuit of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination at the party convention this summer in Tampa, Fla.

As the campaigns pivoted toward Super Tuesday, it appeared Romney’s narrow home state triumph after a string of weak performances had quelled talk of a late entrance into the race by another contender.

There seemed no doubt that the next major clash would occur in Ohio, a big industrial state with 8.1 percent unemployment, 63 convention delegates at stake and a long history as a battleground in general election campaigns. Romney and Santorum have already campaigned there, and television advertising has topped $4 million in the state, a total that includes not only the two leading contenders but also super PACs that support them and Gingrich, as well.

In a renewed commitment, the super PAC supporting Gingrich also disclosed it would spend more than $800,000 in radio ads in upcoming primary states, including Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Santorum has been running a shoestring campaign, but a spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said the former Pennsylvania senator had raised $9 million in February for his candidacy.

Romney is all but assured of victories in at least two of next Tuesday’s states — Massachusetts, where he was governor and faces little or no competition in the primary, and Virginia, where neither Gingrich nor Santorum qualified for the ballot. Those two contests offer 84 delegates combined.

Gingrich looked to Georgia, where he launched his political career 30 years ago, to ignite an improbable comeback. The former House speaker conceded it was a state he must win, and he predicted he would, decisively. Polls show him leading but below the 50 percent level he would need to sweep all 76 delegates.

Surveys show Santorum running strongly in Oklahoma, which has 40 delegates, while Tennessee, with 55, shapes up as a struggle. There are modest amounts of television advertising in both states, indicating that several camps view then as competitive.

Paul appears to be contesting Romney in Vermont, with 17 delegates.

Paul also intends to make a rare campaign trip to Alaska for the weekend in hopes of gaining his first victory of the year in the state’s caucuses. There are 24 delegates up for grabs. Two other caucus states, Idaho, 32 delegates, and North Dakota, 28, were drawing unusual interest from all four contenders.

So far, 290 delegates have been awarded, while 419, are on the ballot next Tuesday alone.

In the Associated Press tally, Romney now has 167 delegates, Santorum has 87, Gingrich has 32 and Paul has 19.

Romney spent much of Wednesday in Ohio, where he campaigned on a promise to help the economy recover from the worst recession in decades. He was asked about other issues as well.

Asked by a member of the audience at a town hall-style event how he would protect Second Amendment rights, he replied, “I have guns myself; I’m not going to tell you where they are.” Aides later said he owns a pair of handguns but would not say where they are registered.

Romney also said that if Iran gains nuclear weapons and there is an attack from a terrorist organization, the Iranian government would “become one in the circle of suspects and America will be free to take action against them just as they would if they launched it themselves.”

Romney’s remark about winning the votes of Michigan primary-goers who said economy and jobs were their top priority was grounded in exit polls, which showed he defeated Santorum among that group, 47 percent to 30 percent.

The same surveys suggested a continuing divide within the party that could give Santorum and Gingrich an opportunity to extend the nominating campaign far longer than the customary GOP race.

Romney won the votes of Michigan primary voters who said they were somewhat conservative, 50 percent to 32 percent. Santorum topped him among those who said they were very conservative, 50-36. Each group accounted for roughly 30 percent of the overall electorate. Half of all primary-goers said they supported the tea party, and Romney and Santorum split those voters’ support down the middle.

The same exit poll turned up evidence of dissatisfaction among primary voters with their choices. Slightly more than a third said they had reservations about their candidate.

Even so, turnout rose in both Michigan and Arizona over four years ago, a change in a recent trend of diminished voter participation. Roughly one million votes were cast in Michigan, compared to 869,000 four years ago.

Turnout in Arizona topped 600,000, up from about 540,000 in 2008.

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Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy in New York, David Pace in Washington, Kasie Hunt in Ohio and Steve Peoples and Erik Schelzig in Tennessee contributed to this story.

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