COLUMBUS, Ohio — Mitt Romney scored a cliff-hanger win in Ohio's presidential primary, taking the marquee match-up in Super Tuesday elections across 10 states but missing a knockout as his top rival had a strong night, too.
Ohio remained dramatically close through the night but Romney overtook the lead from Rick Santorum, the scrappy former U.S. senator who scored victories in Oklahoma and Tennessee and fought hard here despite being outspent by millions.
The final result in Ohio — Romney was declared the winner at 12:30 a.m. — sets the tone for the rest of the Republican primary, already marked with wild momentum swings.
Romney sought to project confidence, implying that the important measure is the delegate count, which he will build on considerably.
"There are three states now tonight under our belt, and counting. We're going to get more," Romney said, referring to wins in Virginia, Vermont and Massachusetts and other possible pickups that later on included Idaho.
"I'm not going to let you down," he told a boisterous crowd in Boston well before Ohio was settled. "I'm going to get this nomination."
Romney acknowledged his opponents had worked hard then pivoted to President Barack Obama. "This president has run out of ideas," he said. "He's run out of excuses and in 2012, we're going to get him out of the White House."
He began the day with about 200 delegates and could double that after the full results are known — far from the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination but a big lead on his rivals. Math is on his side; perception is another matter.
About 10 p.m., shortly after Romney finished speaking, North Dakota was called for Santorum. Some thought it would go to Ron Paul, who is hoping to pick up delegates along the way and still had hopes in Alaska. Paul exceeded expectations in Virginia, a possible indicator of the lagging enthusiasm for Romney.
Santorum came away with three wins — Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota — illustrating how the staunchest conservatives remain hostile toward Romney, underscoring the work he has ahead and nurturing murmurs of a brokered convention in Tampa.
Romney overcame a double-digit deficit in Ohio to force a neck-and-neck race with Santorum, emphasizing his business record and job creation. He buried Santorum with negative TV ads, but Santorum fought back with a persistent refrain: Romney is not a true conservative.
Once at the bottom of a large field, Santorum has risen on his appeal to evangelicals and everyman appeal in contrast to multimillionaire Romney. The Tennessee victory was significant as Romney has not done well in the South. (He did win Florida's primary on Jan. 31.) Oklahoma also came with a big cache of delegates.
"We have won in the West, the Midwest and the South, and we're ready to win across this country," Santorum said from Steubenville, Ohio, as the votes were still being counted. "We went up against enormous odds. In every case, we overcame the odds."
He lashed out at the "elites in Washington" who are trying to decide the race, then turned to his chief rallying cry, a stinging indictment of President Obama's health care plan. "This is the beginning of the end of freedom in America," Santorum said. "Once the government has control of your life, then they got ya'."
Santorum has said Romney cannot make the case against "Obamacare" because the plan Massachusetts adopted while he was governor served as a model for the federal law. "We need a person running against President Obama who is right on the issues and truthful with the American public."
In a night with a big uncertainty, one thing was clear: Santorum has the incentive to push on.
"There is absolutely no reason for him to get out," said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist in Florida who is unaffiliated with a candidate. "Santorum is not getting beaten by Romney. He's losing narrowly based on inferior organization and financing. The Republican establishment better buy a couple of lawn chairs and sit down and watch the grass grow because this barbershop quartet will keep touring."
Newt Gingrich easily won Georgia, which he represented in Congress for two decades, and said it provides the momentum to give him yet another shot at displacing Romney.
Instead, he may only be helping Romney by taking away support from Santorum.
Exit polls across the states showed many Republicans still doubt Romney's conservative credentials, but agree he is the most electable.
"He's the only one who can beat Obama," said Joe Erb, 29, who lives in Hilliard outside Columbus.
"He's actually run a government, he's run a business. Santorum, while I like a lot of the things he has to say, has never run anything and he's running a poor campaign."
Indeed, even despite a big night, Santorum's organizational problems were on display. Santorum injured himself by failing to get on the ballot in Virginia, a delegate-rich battleground state Romney won by a large measure, and missed procedural steps in Ohio that automatically kept him from winning some delegates.
So much was riding on Super Tuesday, particularly Ohio. A loss for Romney here would have leveled a psychological blow and guarantee days of news media attention on his weakness among the Republican base.
Romney hoped to stand in the same position as John McCain did four years ago in the Republican primary. McCain won Ohio and effectively captured the nomination, forcing Romney to give up his campaign. No Republican has lost Ohio and gone on to win the presidency.
Romney worked hard in recent days to sell voters, particularly the working class he has struggled to connect with, on the idea he is best equipped to handle the economy.
On Monday, a jeans-wearing Romney appeared at a factory in Canton that makes highway guard rails and an industrial equipment manufacturing plant in Youngstown, backdrops scripted to reinforce his emphasis on jobs.
Gingrich's Georgia victory came with 76 delegates but was his only win since the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. Still, he pushed forward even before polls closed Tuesday and campaigned in Alabama, which holds its primary next week.
After returning to Atlanta, Gingrich, like Santorum, blamed "elite" Republicans and the media for trying to kill his campaign. "There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through. I'm the tortoise. I just take one step at a time."
He cast his quest as a fight for the soul of the GOP and said only he has the bold ideas and the skills to debate Obama.
Overall, the protracted bitter GOP primary has hurt the Republican candidates. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday showed among independent voters, none of the four candidates is regarded favorably by even 40 percent of the sample.
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]