Super Tuesday Contests Will Reshape GOP Race

The coming week offers Romney his best opportunity to begin to break away from his rivals, as he is likely to add — possibly significantly — to the delegate lead he already enjoys. But a popular-vote loss to Rick Santorum in the marquee race in Ohio would once again highlight weakness rather than strength.

The former Massachusetts governor has struggled to gain a significant advantage on his three remaining rivals and has been hurt by his failure to do better against a relatively weak field of candidates.

On Saturday, he got a boost heading into Tuesday by winning the Washington state caucuses. Returns from caucuses in 60 percentof the state’s precincts showed Romney with 37 percent of the vote. Rivals Rick Santorum and Ron Paul battled for second place, while Newt Gingrich ran a distant fourth.

Although there are primaries and caucuses all over the country on Super Tuesday, much of the attention is focused on Ohio, a critical general-election swing state and the most contested of the primaries that day. There, Romney and Santorum are engaged in a rematch of their closely fought battle a week earlier in Michigan.

“Psychologically and politically, Ohio is critical,” Republican strategist Ralph Reed said. “If Santorum wins Ohio, it helps him raise money and extend the game. If Romney wins it, like Michigan, it burnishes the aura of inevitability.”

Whatever the results on Super Tuesday, the Republican race probably will continue for many weeks, if only because party rules make it difficult for any candidate to quickly amass the necessary 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination. Those rules and the existence of super PACs backing individual candidates have diminished the incentive for losing candidates to quit the race.

By historical standards, this week’s balloting pales in comparison with Super Tuesdays of the past. Four years ago, there were roughly two dozen contests on Super Tuesday. But with 437 delegates at stake in 10 states, and the beginning of delegate awards in an 11th, Tuesday marks the biggest single day of voting in the 2012 Republican race.

Sweep unlikely

Taken together, Tuesday’s contests provide a rich mixture of regional and demographic constituencies that make it unlikely that any candidate can hope for a sweep, which means everyone has something important at stake.

Romney needs to emerge as the overall winner if he hopes to prove he is the genuine front-runner. Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, wants to show that the GOP race is a two-person contest and that he has the political appeal to win. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich needs a victory in Georgia to justify continuing his candidacy. Paul needs a breakthrough that has eluded him all year.