Evan Vucci, 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 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.
In interviews as voters left their polling places, Republicans in state after state said the economy was the top issue and an ability to defeat Obama was what mattered most as they made their Super Tuesday choices.
They also indicated nagging concerns about the candidate they supported, even in Massachusetts, There, one-third of all primary voters said they had reservations, and about three-quarters of those voted for Romney.
Massachusetts is a reliably Democratic state in most presidential elections, but in Ohio, 41 percent of primary voters said they, too, had reservations about the candidate they supported. No Republican has ever won the White House without capturing Ohio.
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.
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