WASHINGTON — The marathon race at a crossroads, Mitt Romney and his Republican rivals battled coast-to-coast in a Super Tuesday showdown across 10 states for more than 400 delegates — by far the busiest day of the campaign for the party's presidential nomination.
The man they hope to defeat in November, President Barack Obama, meanwhile dismissed their almost-constant criticism of his foreign policy efforts and accused Republicans of "beating the drums of war" over Iran. "Those folks don't have a lot of responsibilities. They're not commander in chief," he said.
Ohio was the day's biggest prize in political significance, a heavily populated industrial state that tested Rick Santorum's ability to challenge Romney in a traditional fall battleground. Georgia, Newt Gingrich's home political field, outranked them all in the number of delegates at stake, with 76, a total that reflected a reliable Republican voting pattern as well as population.
There were other primaries in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Vermont, Massachusetts, where Romney served one term as governor, and Virginia, where he shared the ballot with Ron Paul after neither Santorum nor Gingrich qualified. Caucuses in North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska rounded out the calendar.
In line with states that held contests earlier in the year, a plurality of Ohio primary voters interviewed as they left their polling places said an ability to defeat Obama mattered most to them when it came time to choose a candidate. Not surprisingly, the economy was the No. 1 issue in a state where unemployment was measured at 7.9 percent in December.
Romney, the leader in the early delegate chase, flew home to Massachusetts to vote and said he hoped for a good home-state win. Overall, he added, "I think we'll pick up a lot of delegates, and this is a process of gathering enough delegates to become the nominee and I think we're on track to have that happen."
He also took issue with Obama, saying, "I think all of us are being pretty serious" about Iran and its possible attempt to develop nuclear weapons.
Gingrich, hoping for a victory in Georgia, effectively acknowledged he had scant Super Tuesday prospects elsewhere. Instead, he was pointing to primaries next week in Alabama and Mississippi, and he told an audience, "With your help, by the end of next week we could really be in a totally new race."
Obama, unopposed for the Democratic nomination, stepped into the Republican race with a Super Tuesday news conference at the White House. Asked what he had to say to Romney in response to the Republican's harsh criticism, he responded with a big smile, "Good luck tonight."
He later attended a $35,800-per-ticket fundraiser a few blocks from the White House.
The polls show the president's chances for re-election have improved in recent months, as the economy has strengthened, unemployment has slowly declined and Republicans have ripped into one another in the most tumultuous nominating campaign the party has endured since 1976.
No matter the winner on Tuesday, the day marked a key point as the race turned from one or two contests at a time into a sprawling near-nationwide competition for 419 delegates.
Romney led in the delegate hunt as polls opened. He had 203 in The Associated Press count, while Santorum had 92, Gingrich 33 and Paul 25. It takes 1,144 to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention this August in Tampa, Fla.
The former Massachusetts governor campaigned into Super Tuesday on a winning streak. He captured the Washington state caucuses last Saturday, days after winning a little-contested primary in Arizona and a hard-fought one in Michigan. He won the Maine caucuses earlier in February.
The victories helped settle his campaign, which was staggered when Santorum won a pair of caucuses and a non-binding Missouri primary on Feb. 7.
Santorum and Gingrich have vied for months to emerge as the sole conservative alternative to Romney, and they battered him as a moderate who would lead the party to defeat in November.
But Romney, backed by a heavily financed super PAC, countered Gingrich's victory in the South Carolina primary with a comeback win in Florida. Last week, it was Santorum's turn to fall, as Romney eked out a win in Michigan after trailing by double digits in some polls 10 days before the primary.
Santorum's recent rise has translated into campaign receipts of $9 million in February, his aides announced last week.
Even so, Romney and Restore our Future, the super PAC supporting him, outspent the other candidates and their supporters on television in the key Super Tuesday states.
In Ohio, Romney's campaign purchased about $1.5 million for television advertisements, and Restore Our Future spent $2.3 million. Santorum and Red, White and Blue, a super PAC that supports him, countered with about $1 million combined, according to information on file with the Federal Election Commission, a disadvantage of nearly four to one.
In Tennessee, where Romney did not purchase television time, Restore Our Future spent more than $1 million to help him. Santorum paid for a little over $225,000, and Winning our Future, a super PAC that backs Gingrich, nearly $470,000.
In Georgia, where Gingrich acknowledged he must win, the pro-Romney super PAC spent about $1.5 million in hopes of holding the former House speaker below 50 percent of the vote, the threshold needed to maximize his delegate take.
While the day boasted more primaries and caucuses than any other in 2012, it was a shadow of Super Tuesday in 2008, when there were 20 Republican contests.
There was another big difference, a trend away from winner-take-all contests to a system of allocating delegates in rough proportion to a candidate's share of the popular vote.
Sen. John McCain won eight states on Super Tuesday in 2008 and lost 12 to Romney and Mike Huckabee combined. But six of McCain's victories were winner-take-all primaries, allowing him to build an insurmountable delegate lead that all but sealed his nomination.