In a Super Tuesday nail-biter, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney barely edged out conservative rival Rick Santorum in the vital battleground of Ohio and won four of the night's other contests as voters helped widen his delegate lead without conclusively settling the fight for the nomination.
Romney also notched victories in Idaho, Vermont, Virginia and his home-state of Massachusetts, while Santorum won North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and Newt Gingrich carried his home state of Georgia. As of 1:07 a.m. EST, news outlets had yet to call Alaska.
"This marks an important moment in this election," Romney said in a fundraising email sent moments after news media projected he would beat Santorum in Ohio after narrowly trailing for much of the night. "We are moving forward with momentum and a clear message to the American people: more jobs, less debt, smaller government. And it's this message that will help us defeat President Obama in November,"
Eight months from Election Day, the former Massachusetts governor widened his already sizable lead in delegates to the nominating convention that will pick the party's standard-bearer against President Barack Obama, and made it ever-more mathematically implausible for his rivals to pry the nomination from his grasp.
Santorum, his standing as Romney's top conservative rival confirmed anew by the outcome, vowed to keep fighting.
"This campaign is about the towns that have been left behind -- and the families that made those towns the greatest towns across this country, " Santorum said in a hoarse but defiant speech in Steubenville, Ohio. "This was a big night tonight. Lots of states. We're going to win a few, we're going to lose a few. But as it looks right now, we're going to get at least a couple of gold medals, and a whole passel full of silver medals."
"We're ready to win across this country," said Santorum, who traded his trademark sweater vest for a staid business suit.
At a rowdy rally in his hometown of Boston, punctuated by chants of "All! The! Way!" and "Go! Mitt! Go!", Romney celebrated his victories and trained his rhetorical fire on Obama's handling of the economy.
"To the millions of Americans who look around and see jobs they can't get and bills that they can't pay, I have a message: You have not failed. You have a president that's failed you. And that's gonna change," he promised. "To this administration, the unemployment number is just another inconvenient statistic, standing in the way of a second term."
The 10 states in play accounted for 419 delegates of the 1144 needed to clinch the party's nomination -- more than every preceding nominating contest combined.
And analysts were sure to scour results from Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia for clues to the best path to the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the keys to the White House.
Gingrich's faltering campaign got a shot in the arm as media forecasts anointed him the winner in Georgia. The former speaker wasted no time scolding the "elite media" for counting him out time and again.
"It's alright. There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through. I'm the tortoise. I just take one step at a time," he said with wife Callista at his side in his Atlanta headquarters as supporters waved "Newt-a-Mania" signs.
Texas Representative Ron Paul, backed by a devoted army of mostly young voters, showed no sign of giving up his long-shot campaign.
Paul, who has yet to win a state in the nomination battle, spent the day campaigning in Idaho and North Dakota. Speaking in Fargo as early returns came in, the veteran lawmaker said he was the only candidate to buck the two major parties' orthodoxies.
Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin told CNN television moments after voting in Alaska that she would be open to running in 2016. She later reportedly told Fox Business Network that she had cast her ballot for Gingrich.
At the White House, the man Republicans have vowed to oust wasn't relinquishing the political spotlight: Obama held his first solo press conference of 2012 Tuesday, and playfully joked about what aides implausibly insisted was an accident of scheduling.
"Now, I understand there are some political contests going on tonight, but I thought I'd start the day off by taking a few questions, which I'm sure will not be political in nature," he said, before blasting his Republican critics on Iran.
Read coverage of Super Tuesday 2012 at Yahoo News.
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