3 GOP Candidates Split Super Tuesday Wins

Mitt Romney won six of the 10 Super Tuesday contests. Rick Santorum won three while Newt Gingrich won one. Ron Paul was the only candidate who did not win at least one contest.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Here's another morning where perceptions mean a lot to Mitt Romney. He won six of 10 states that voted on Super Tuesday. Nobody else came close. That means a lot of convention delegates for Romney, after wins in Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, Alaska and the key state of Ohio. But Romney's win in Ohio over Rick Santorum was narrow, and given all of his advantages of money and organization, Romney did not wipe out his rivals, as NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Even before the final results from Ohio were in, Mitt Romney was at his victory party in Massachusetts promising his supporters he would be the nominee, but also acknowledging the race had been a harder slog than he expected.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: It's been a long road getting to Super Tuesday. Let me be honest. And my opponents have worked very hard. I want to congratulate Newt Gingrich on a good night in Georgia and Rick Santorum on his good night, and Ron Paul...

LIASSON: And that was the only mention he made of his Republican rivals. The rest of Romney's speech showed how eager he was to free himself from the circular firing squad of the Republican primary and get on with the big battle against President Obama, a fight he's had to neglect while spending time and money fending off a tag team of flawed and underfunded challengers. Last night, he turned his attention back to the man he plans to run against this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROMNEY: To the millions of Americans who look around and can only 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 going to change.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Romney has based his campaign on his ability to turn the economy around, so he needs to convince Americans that despite some recent improvements, the economy is not getting better fast enough.

ROMNEY: My friends, the truth is, 8 percent unemployment is not the best America can do. It's just the best that this administration can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: For Rick Santorum, Ohio may have been the last chance to slow Romney's march to the nomination. Santorum held his election night party in Steubenville, Ohio, in a high school gym without any of the fancy trappings of a victory night celebration. He told his working-class supporters that his campaign was about all the towns that had been left behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICK SANTORUM: We need a fighter. We need a fighter and someone who learned what America was about by growing up in communities just like this, understanding how America and neighborhoods and families work, and believing in them, understanding they're under a lot of stress and strain right now, much of which is put upon them by the government.

LIASSON: Santorum has relied heavily on social issues to win over conservatives, but he didn't talk about abortion or contraception or gay marriage last night. Instead, he painted a dark picture of an overreaching government that would use the new health care law to break the back of liberty, a health care law he accused Mitt Romney of supporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANTORUM: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the beginning of the end of freedom in America. Once the government has control of your life, then they got you.

LIASSON: Newt Gingrich easily won his home state of Georgia - a state he said he needed in order to continue in the race. With his first win since South Carolina, Gingrich announced he was moving on to the upcoming contests in Mississippi, Alabama and Kansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEWT GINGRICH: There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through. I'm the tortoise. I just take one step at a time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Ron Paul hasn't won a single state yet, and even though he came up empty-handed again last night, he told his supporters they had sent a strong message to the rest of the country that all the other candidates were the same. Only he was different.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RON PAUL: The rest of the candidates support the status quo. Foreign policies never change. Monetary policy doesn't change. There's no challenge to the Federal Reserve system, and...

LIASSON: Exit polls showed that, once again, Santorum did best with evangelical voters, like Mary Lou Reynolds from Ohio.

MARY LOU REYNOLDS: He seems very down to earth. I like his spiritual living, and so forth. And he's a father. He's a family man.

LIASSON: Romney continued to do best with more affluent educated voters and those who considered the economy the most important issue.

Betty Miller, a retired registered nurse from Oklahoma, voted for Romney.

BETTY MILLER: And I voted for him because I want, first of all, to get this economy and jobs back to work.

LIASSON: Don and Mary Romine, also from Oklahoma, were Newt Gingrich fans. But when it came time to choose, they split their votes.

DON ROMINE: Yeah, I voted for Newt Gingrich.

MARY ROMINE: I voted for Mitt Romney because I'm tired of the Republicans fighting among each other. And I really am for Newt, but I don't think he has the chance. When it comes down to it, I think Mitt is going to be the candidate.

LIASSON: Romney's narrow win in Ohio could convince more Republicans to do the same: fall in line even if they're not falling in love - because after Super Tuesday, it becomes harder for any of the other candidates to map out a path to the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination. Now it's easier for Romney to make the case that although the race is far from over, he is the inevitable nominee.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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