Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney rolled to primary victories in Virginia, Vermont and home-state Massachusetts on Super Tuesday, reaching for a decisive advantage in the most turbulent race for the Republican presidential nomination in a generation.
But his rivals countered crisply. Rick Santorum won in Tennessee and led in Oklahoma, while Newt Gingrich scored a home-field win in Georgia — fresh evidence that they retain the ability to outpace the former Massachusetts senator in parts of the country despite his huge organizational and financial advantages.
Romney and Santorum also dueled in Ohio, their second industrial-state showdown in as many weeks and the marquee matchup of the busiest night of the race.
In Ohio, with 6 percent of the precincts counted, they were separated by fewer than 1,700 votes out of more than 170,000 cast.
Win or lose there, Romney said "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."
There were primaries in Virginia, Vermont, Ohio, Massachusetts, Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Caucuses in North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska rounded out the calendar.
In all, 419 delegates were at stake in the 10 states, and Romney's early wins allowed him to pad his earlier lead for the nomination.
He picked up at least 64 during the evening, Gingrich 23.
That gave the former Massachusetts governor 264 in The Associated Press count, while Santorum had 92, Gingrich 56 and Paul 25. It takes 1,144 to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention this August in Tampa, Fla.
Gingrich's victory was his first since he captured the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, and the former House speaker said it would propel him on yet another comeback in a race where he has faded badly over the past six weeks.
Obama, the man they hope to defeat in November, dismissed the 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. Unopposed for the Democratic nomination to a second term, he stepped into the Republican race with a Super Tuesday news conference at the White House, then attended a $35,800-a-ticket fundraiser a few blocks from the White House.
Ohio was the day's biggest prize in political significance, a heavily populated industrial state that tested Santorum's ability to challenge Romney in a traditional fall battleground. Georgia, 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.
Romney, the leader in the early delegate chase, flew to Massachusetts to vote and said he hoped for a good home-state win.
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 effectively acknowledged he had scant Super Tuesday prospects outside Georgia, where he launched his political career nearly three decades ago. 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."
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.
In Georgia, Gingrich was gaining 48 percent of the vote in early returns, with Santorum at 24 percent and Romney close behind at 22 percent.
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