The outcome of Republican primary and caucus votes in 10 States on Tuesday offers Mitt Romney yet another chance to become the party’s inevitable nominee to face President Barack Obama in November.
That will depend largely on the vote in the bellwether State of Ohio, where polls show the former Massachusetts Governor and Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania Senator, in a virtual tie.
Mr. Romney, who turned back Mr. Santorum in a close contest in Michigan last week, hoped to continue his winning trend, having won four consecutive contests including Saturday’s Washington State caucuses.
At stake in the 10 States that cast ballots during what’s known as Super Tuesday are 419 delegates to the party’s August national convention, by far the most of any day in the primary season. A candidate must amass at least 1,144 to win the nomination.
Going into the Tuesday balloting, Mr. Romney leads with 203 delegates from previous contests, Mr. Santorum has 92, Newt Gingrich has 33 and Representative Ron Paul, 25.
Mr. Romney, despite his lead, still faces persistent scepticism among conservative voters who dislike his past moderate record.
Mr. Obama, meanwhile, is seeing his poll numbers rise in tandem with signs that the struggling U.S. economy may finally be on a course toward sustained recovery. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released on Monday shows him defeating all of the Republican candidates in hypothetical head-to-head matchups.
And the issue seemed certain to deepen the concerns of many women voters, who along with the broad spectrum of all independents will likely determine the ultimate outcome in the November election. Polls show women are already turning back to Obama.
Mr. Obama picked Tuesday to hold his first news conference of the year, a chance to steal a bit of thunder from the Republicans and defend a record of economic stewardship that is under daily assault in the Republican campaign.
In the Republican race, a Romney loss to Mr. Santorum in Ohio almost certainly would assure that the primary contest continues further into March or perhaps beyond.
The focus on social issues has propelled the success of Mr. Santorum, who campaigns as a social conservative and is the latest candidate to pose a threat to Romney.
Third-place Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, has focussed his efforts on Georgia, the State that he represented in the Congress for two decades. Georgia is part of Mr. Gingrich’s strategy to reinvigorate his once top-tier candidacy by sweeping primaries in the American south.
Mr. Paul, who holds a small but loyal bloc of voters who favour his small-government, low-tax libertarian message, has focussed on the smaller States that vote at caucus meetings that are easier to win in for a low budget candidacy like his.
Mr. Romney projected confidence ahead of the Tuesday vote. “I hope that I get the support of people here in Ohio tomorrow, and in other states across the country. I believe if I do, I’ll get the nomination,” he said.
Mr. Romney, a former private equity firm executive, tried to keep his campaign’s focus on the economy and away from divisive social issues in a final sprint across Ohio.
Mr. Romney is expected to do well in Massachusetts, where he served a four-year term as Governor, and Vermont, a neighbouring State. He is also poised to win the Virginia primary where Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich did not collect enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Mr. Romney’s broad, well-disciplined organisation all but assures he’ll collect more delegates than his opponents on Tuesday. Mr. Santorum cannot win 18 of Ohio’s 66 delegates because he failed to qualify his delegate slates in several congressional districts.
Besides Ohio, Mr. Santorum is competing most aggressively in primaries in Oklahoma and Tennessee, where the Republican electorate’s conservative hue matches his strict social conservative’s appeal to religious voters. He was leading narrowly in Tennessee, where polls showed Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney closing.
Despite signs that Mr. Gingrich planned to remain in the race, Mr. Santorum urged voters in Ohio to see it as increasingly a two-candidate fight.
At a rally at Dayton Christian School, Mr. Santorum said that no matter how much Mr. Romney spends on his campaign, “conservatives will not trust him, will not rally around him this primary season.” He has cited Mr. Romney’s past support for abortion rights and a health care reform plan enacted in Massachusetts that Mr. Obama used as a model in crafting his national programme that Republicans loathe.
Mr. Romney turned to foreign affairs in an opinion piece published in Tuesday’s editions of The Washington Post, writing that if he were President, he would combine diplomacy with “a military option” to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He said he would increase military assistance to Israel.