STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Rick Santorum kept his GOP presidential campaign alive on Super Tuesday, and as he took the stage inside a high school gymnasium here, he was smiling like a winner. He had already been declared the victor in Tennessee and Oklahoma, and would add another win in the North Dakota caucuses later in the evening. When he gave his speech shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday, the latest results showed Santorum leading in the crucial battleground of Ohio.
“We’ve won races all over this country against the odds,” Santorum told his cheering supporters. “When they thought, ‘Oh, OK, he’s finally finished,’ we keep coming back.”
Indeed, after last week’s tough loss in the Michigan primary, it appeared that Santorum might be on the verge of being “finally finished,” but the former Pennsylvania senator fought back to re-establish himself as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.
“We need a person running against President Obama who is right on the issues and truthful with the American public,” Santorum told the crowd in Steubenville, a gritty blue-collar city across the Ohio River from West Virginia. “We need a fighter, someone who grew up in communities like this.”
Santorum clearly believes he is that fighter, and the Super Tuesday results ensured that his fight for the Republican nomination would go on. The lead in Ohio seesawed back and forth past midnight. “Too close to call,” the TV commentators kept saying, even as they discussed the significance of the result. Whatever the final totals, Santorum had scored at least a moral victory on a night that once more exposed the weakness of Romney as the GOP front-runner.
The outcome of Super Tuesday also put pressure on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who won his home state of Georgia, but placed third in several other states, and finished fourth in both North Dakota and Vermont. Before the polls closed in Ohio, the Santorum campaign’s senior strategist John Brabender seemed to express frustration at the way Gingrich continues splitting the anti-Romney vote. “Let me ask you this, if you’re Newt Gingrich, and you get, what, 15 percent of the vote, what does that say about you?” Brabender said. “If you come in third or fourth in Vermont, what does that say about you? Really, the true story is two things to me, Gingrich can only perform in certain states, and whereas Rick Santorum can do well in a lot of states.”
Gingrich got slightly less than 15 percent of the vote in Ohio where, with 95 percent of precincts reporting near midnight, Romney led Santorum by less than 1 percentage point, a margin of barely 7,000 votes out of more than a million cast. Santorum’s strategist Brabender said Romney “knows darn well that there are conservatives and Tea Party voters who are splitting the votes, and that’s the only way he can move forward, and his worst nightmare is that we can get this down to a true test of conservatives.” Romney’s weakness was on display not only here in Ohio, where he got less than 40 percent of the vote despite outspending Santorum by a 6-to-1 margin, but also in Virginia, where neither Gingrich nor Santorum was on the ballot and more than 40 percent cast their votes for Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Weak as he is, however, Romney continues steadily accumulating an edge in the delegate count, and at least one analyst has predicted that it is already impossible for any other candidate but Romney to get the 1,144 delegates necessary to win the GOP nomination on the first ballot at the August convention in Tampa. Yet that prediction was based on a mathematical formula that might become instantly obsolete if Santorum could drive Gingrich out of the race. Santorum’s Tuesday win in Tennessee suggested that Gingrich might be vulnerable to a challenge in the South. That may explain why Santorum began his post-Super Tuesday campaign schedule with a Wednesday trip to Alabama, which votes next week, as does Mississippi. If Santorum were to defeat Gingrich in those Deep South states, the battle for the Republican nomination could come down to a “true test of conservatives” — Santorum vs. Romney — rather quickly.
Santorum’s campaign is also clearly willing to carry their fight all the way to the convention. When a reporter asked Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley about the Romney camp’s claim that Santorum can’t win a majority of delegates, Gidley retorted: “He’s got to get to 1,144 too.… He wants us out because he can’t get there.” If a drawn-out campaign leaves both candidates short of the magic number, Gidley said, “so be it.”
It was half-past midnight in Steubenville when the Associated Press at last declared that Romney had narrowly won Ohio, but by then Santorum’s supporters had already left the high school gym, confident that their candidate was still in the fight.