Gerald Herbert/AP

Romney survives Super Tuesday, but fierce GOP race goes on

Front-runner adds to delegate haul, but rivals snare enough victories to stay in the race.

For Republicans who hoped Super Tuesday would mark the beginning of the end of an increasingly destructive Republican primary, it was not to be.

Mitt Romney won the most states, boosted his delegate haul and eked out a critical victory in Ohio -- yet he failed to vanquish much weaker rivals Tuesday despite his vastly superior resources and organization. Rick Santorum’s victories in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota will allow him to continue to defend his longshot bid for the White House, while Newt Gingrich stayed above water by taking his home state of Georgia.

Tuesday’s mixed verdict doesn’t change the delegate math that ultimately adds up to a Romney nomination, but the protracted battle gives his scrappy challengers more chances to undercut his conservative credentials. The next states to vote – Kansas on March 10 and Mississippi and Alabama on March 13 – are heavy with the type of socially conservative, Christian voters who have rejected Romney nationwide.

In the view of many Republicans, every day that Romney spends trying to shake his GOP rivals is another day that President Obama gets a free pass.

“He is methodically going to get the nomination, but it’s going to drag on for a while,’’ said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Romney campaign adviser in 2008. “He needs time to raise money for the general election and to repair the damage of a primary, and he can’t do that if it gets too close to the convention. We need to have this thing wrapped up by April.’’

The showdown with Santorum in Ohio once again exposed Romney as the most fragile Republican frontrunner in decades. The former Pennsylvania senator was branded a loser after a humiliating defeat in his 2006 reelection race and has been running a bare-bones campaign that only recently opened a national headquarters. He didn’t even qualify for a full slate of delegates in Ohio or Tennessee, and he wasn’t on the ballot at all in Virginia. Santorum’s survival reveals more about Romney’s struggles to connect with the conservative base of his party than it does about his own strengths.

While Romney could blame previous losses on the strong conservative or evangelical bents of those states or on his own lack of effort, Ohio offered none of those excuses. Romney outspent Santorum 4-to-1. He campaigned hard. Meanwhile, Santorum was widely criticized for an erratic stretch on the campaign trail in which he condemned birth control, called President Obama a “snob’’ for promoting higher education, and said President John F. Kennedy’s famous speech on the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.’’

“When they thought, oh okay, he’s finally finished, we keep coming back’’ Santorum said Tuesday night. “We are in this thing.’’

Santorum seemed to acknowledge the need to pivot toward the Republican mainstream by naming President Obama’s health care plan – not abortion or gay marriage -- as his top target on Tuesday night.

Romney’s cheerful but stoic speech Tuesday night, meanwhile, hinted at the slog ahead. He offered little in the way of inspiration or reassurance for Republicans who hope the end is near. “Tomorrow we wake up and we start again. And the next day we do the same,’’ he said.  “And so it will go, day by day, step by step, door to door, heart to heart. There will be good days and bad days, always long hours and never enough time.’’

Where Romney won on Tuesday, he won on technicalities or special circumstances. He won in Virginia, where Ron Paul was the only other candidate in the ballot, and in Idaho, where he could count on support from a large Mormon population. He won in Massachusetts, where he spent his career and served as governor, and in the neighboring state of Vermont.

Exit polls in Ohio reinforced Romney’s limited appeal among blue-collar voters and conservative Republicans. Santorum was more popular among voters who earned between $30,000 and $100,000, though Romney won by 7 percentage points among voters who make less than $30,000. Santorum was favored by voters who describe themselves as “very conservative,’’ 48 to 33 percent, and who “strongly support’’ the tea party, 41 to 34 percent. Evangelical Christians also leaned toward Santorum, a Catholic who has put abortion and marriage at the center of his campaign, 46 to 34 percent.

In Tennessee, the contrasts were even stronger, Rick Santorum dominated voters making under $50,000, 36 to 25 percent. “Very conservative’’ voters favored him 47 to 19 percent over Romney, and strong tea party supporters by 39 to 22 percent. Romney got half the amount of support from evangelical Christians.

The Romney campaign started making the case that Santorum is a lost cause even before the polls opened on Tuesday, pointing out that he will not be on the ballot in the District of Columbia and won’t compete for a full slate of delegates in Illinois.

“Any one of these issues alone would be a cause for concern, but taken in total they show a campaign that is simply not prepared to take on a Democratic machine that will raise and spend $1 billion,’’ Romney’s political director Rick Beeson wrote of Santorum, adding that it is “virtually impossible for him to catch up to Gov. Romney in delegates, let alone ever get to 1,144.’’

Nobody is asking Obama if the race is over, but it’s been apparent for months that his campaign views Romney as his opponent. The Democratic National Committee sought to make hay of recent polls showing negative views of Romney on the rise in a memo circulated Tuesday morning. The party also sought to diminish Romney’s success by pointing to the millions of dollars his campaign has spent in attack ads.

“While Super Tuesday represents a pivotal moment in the race for the Republican nomination, tonight is hardly the end of the battle for Mitt Romney,’’ DNC Executive Director Patrick Gaspard predicted before the polls closed.  “Mitt Romney will emerge from Super Tuesday badly wounded among general election voters – and tonight will be anything but a victory lap.’’