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On this Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney hopes to firm up his front-runner status against rivals competing in ten states holding primaries and caucuses. NPR did an analysis of how Romney achieved that status. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, it involved his campaign and a pro-Romney superPAC burying the opposition with negative messages.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: We looked at the first 11 contests of this year, the ones that began in Iowa and ended in Arizona and Michigan. In those 11 battles, the Romney campaign spent $11 million on TV advertising. And the pro-Romney superPAC, Restore Our Future, with its massive, unregulated contributions, spent another $21 million.

The superPAC alone spent more than the TV budgets of Romney rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, plus the message spending of the superPACs backing them.

Travis Ridout is a political scientist at Washington State University and a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, tracking TV ads in the presidential race. Ridout says Florida's primary at the end of January showed the power of the pro-Romney superPAC.

TRAVIS RIDOUT: There were huge, huge Romney advantages in terms of the volume of advertising there. And despite going into the state trailing in the polls, he managed to pull out a victory.

OVERBY: That was because the Restore Our Future message, as has been almost exclusively the case, was overwhelmingly negative. Ridout says it's a tone that no candidate could sustain.

RIDOUT: Certainly, it's been a much more negative nomination race than we've seen in past election cycles, precisely because who's paying for those ads has changed.

OVERBY: The assessment of the spending draws on two sources. First, an NPR analysis of the superPAC filings with the Federal Election Commission. And second, data on the candidate campaigns TV spending by Kantar Media CMAG, as analyzed by the Washington Post and the Wesleyan Media Project. The outlines of the race are well known. The pro-Romney superPAC crippled Gingrich in Iowa, but it missed Santorum and he squeezed into first place.

In South Carolina, Gingrich, Santorum and their superPACs outgunned the Romney forces; Romney finished third, but he won both Florida and Nevada with torrents of negative ads. Santorum took Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, which the Romney side neglected. And in Michigan, the Romney and Santorum forces both spent heavily. Romney barely squeaked by.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: These surges have been driven by voters fluctuating in who they support, though seemingly not supporting Romney.

OVERBY: Only in Maine, where nobody advertised, did Romney win without going negative. Charles Franklin is a visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette law school in Milwaukee. He says that frontrunners need to tear down the opposition.

FRANKLIN: The message from the Romney campaign has to be why you're making a mistake to go with this person that's an alternative to me.

OVERBY: But to others, Romney's juggernaut of negative ads looks like a weakness. They say the big spending has trashed his opponents, often in lopsided spending battles, but it hasn't done anything to improve Romney's favorable ratings. Here's Santorum last month at the final candidates' debate reminding voters that President Obama's campaign will have plenty of cash to go after the Republican nominee.

RICK SANTORUM: Maybe you'd want a candidate who's not going to be able to win an election by beating the tar out of his opponent, spending four and five to one in order to win an election.

OVERBY: But Charles Franklin, the Marquette law professor, isn't so sure. He says any establishment candidate would probably be in this situation given the conflicts within the GOP. And Romney's actually in better shape than he might be thanks to his campaign budget and that heavily financed pro-Romney superPAC.

FRANKLIN: He benefits from those advantages. Whether the weaknesses that he shows, though, are his own or reflect the divisions in the parties, I think it's got to be a good bit of both.

OVERBY: And when it comes to closing those divisions by knocking his opponents out of the race, all of those negative ads could turn out to be counterproductive.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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