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Metro

Romney edges Santorum in hard-fought Ohio race

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney eked out a narrow victory over former US senator Rick Santorum in Ohio’s Republican presidential primary, as he picked up victories in at least five of the 10 Super Tuesday states.

Santorum, who won three states; former US House speaker Newt Gingrich, who won one; and libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul, who was hoping for a strong showing in late-voting Alaska; showed no signs of getting out of the race, despite Romney’s hope that the results would bolster his argument that he should be the nominee.

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Romney, speaking to supporters at a ballroom in a hotel in Boston’s Back Bay before the Ohio race was called, criticized President Obama and described his campaign as an “effort to restore the promise of America.”

“This president’s run out of ideas. He’s run out of excuses. And in 2012, we’re going to get him out of the White House,” Romney said.

“I stand ready to lead our party, and I stand ready to lead our nation to prosperity,” he said.

Romney won in Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Idaho, in addition to Ohio. Santorum won in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. Gingrich won in his political home state of Georgia. Returns from Alaska weren’t yet available early this morning.

As many as 437 delegates were at stake in the primaries. Romney was expected to pick up a significant chunk, maintaining his sizeable lead in the delegate count.

Santorum, in an upbeat speech earlier in the evening in Steubenville, Ohio, criticized the growing size of government and the “elites in Washington,” saying the election was about “fundamental liberty.”

“We built a great country from the bottom up and we need people to go up against President Obama and his vision of a top-down government control,” he said.

He also singled out the federal health care reform law and criticized Romney’s role in passing a health care reform law in Massachusetts.

Gingrich told his supporters in Georgia that he was “the one candidate that has the ability to debate Barack Obama.”

He said his campaign has shown that “Wall Street money can be beaten by Main Street work.”

Romney’s supporters had hoped that if he could win both Ohio and Tennessee, it would mark the close of the nomination fight and give him the elusive prize that he has twice sought, and which his father and idol, George, failed to win when he sought the nomination in 1968.

Romney had also hoped that a victory in Tennessee could help dispel doubts about the ability of a Mormon and former Massachusetts governor to appeal to evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt.

Santorum was hoping a victory in Ohio would cement his standing as the chief Romney alternative and prove that Romney was unable to connect with blue-collar workers.

Ron Paul has yet to win any state, and is focused primarily on amassing delegates to influence the platform at the Republican National Convention.

After spending the past week hopscotching around the country, Romney arrived this afternoon in Boston and voted near his home in Belmont before speaking to supporters.

Romney’s wins in Virginia, Vermont, and Massachusetts were expected. Santorum and Gingrich were not on the ballot in Virginia, and Romney had a home-region advantage in the two New England states. In the Idaho caucuses, Romney was expected to get the benefit of a large number of voters sharing his Mormon faith.

Romney had hoped for a strong performance that would generate pressure within the party on his opponents to tone down their attacks on him, if not drop out of the race. Gingrich and Santorum in recent days have only heightened their attacks on Romney, calling him a phony politician, accusing him of trying to buy the election through negative ads, and resurrecting criticisms over the Massachusetts health care plan.

Romney’s recent pitch emphasizes mathematics. His campaign has argued that, while he may not be the one that provides the red meat for the right, he is collecting an insurmountable lead in the fight for delegates. The winner needs 1,144 delegates to win. Prior to Super Tuesday Romney had 180 delegates, compared to 90 for Santorum and 29 for Gingrich, according to a survey by The New York Times.

During the 2008 race, Super Tuesday marked the last major day of voting in the Republican primary contest. John McCain won eight states that day, and within a week Romney had dropped out of the race and Mike Huckabee was too hobbled to mount an aggressive fight.

But that year, most of the states held winner-take-all contests, making it easier for McCain to drive up the delegate count. Republican party leaders have changed the rules this year, forcing many states to distribute their delegates proportionally, as the Democrats did in 2008. That spurred a much longer, drawn-out fight that stretched into the spring.

Republican party leaders last year created rules for their nominating contest that would encourage a long, drawn-out process, hoping that it would make the eventual nominee stronger and incite enthusiasm the way the 2008 race did for Democrats.

But the Republican fight has turned out to be so vitriolic -- with Romney’s rivals tagging him as a phony politician, a heartless business executive, and a wealthy man unburdened by the concerns of average Americans – that some GOP leaders worry that it will leave him too weakened to win the general election if he becomes the party’s nominee.

Michael Kranish and Bobby Caina Calvan of the Globe Washington Bureau contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.
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