Charles Dharapak, ASSOCIATED PRESS
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Super Tuesday wasn't so super for Mitt Romney.
Even though the GOP presidential candidate appears to have eked out a victory in Ohio, the biggest prize among the 10 states voting Tuesday, he's now in a two-man race with Rick Santorum that may not end for months.
"This race is clearly Romney and Santorum," said Atlanta-based GOP strategist Joel McElhannon. "It's a legitimate battle royale going on here. It's really going to be a slugfest."
The former Pennsylvania senator's strong showing of support in Ohio, and his wins in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota scrapped Romney's hopes of emerging Tuesday as the Republican Party's inevitable nominee.
Instead, Romney faces more tough contests in a number of southern states including Alabama and Mississippi on March 13 and Texas on April 3. Big states where he is expected to do well come later in the calendar, like California in June.
Romney did collect the most delegates Tuesday and posted wins in mores states than any other candidate and is further ahead in the race to reach the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination.
But it wasn't enough, though, to put an end to the search for a Romney alternative to face Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
Santorum has held that role since sweeping three states that voted in early February — Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri — and nearly beating Romney in Michigan, the state where Romney grew up and his father was a popular governor.
The candidate that challenged Romney for frontrunner status earlier in the race, former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich, said Tuesday he's staying in the race after a big win in his home state of Georgia.
Santorum has put Romney in a difficult position by stressing social issues, Ohio State University political science professor emeritus Herb Weisberg said.
Romney has avoided those issues "like the plague," Weisberg said, since they remind voters not only that he is not as conservative as Santorum, but that his stands have shifted, sometimes dramatically, over the years.
"Also, the Mormon factor," Weisberg said. "The more Romney talks about social issues and religion, the more people remember he's Mormon and wonder what that means. Staying on the economy is a very safe thing for Romney to do."
But Romney's pledge to bring the business expertise that made him rich to Washington, D.C., has also caused voters to question whether he can understand the plight of most Americans.
In suburban Columbus Tuesday, Carl Williams, a retired security officer, said he voted for Santorum because he believes Romney is "a fat cat. I don’t think he's for the middle class. He's made that pretty clear. That's the real reason I’m not voting for him."
Pam Kovach, a part-time technician, said she cast her ballot for Ron Paul to help put a stop to Romney's march to the nomination. She said she wouldn’t support Romney in the general election if he becomes the nominee.
"I'd vote Obama," she said. "I don’t need someone who's so out of touch with reality. They're both bad. (Obama is) the lesser of two evils."
Kovach said Romney's wealth, estimated at $250 million, means he's out of touch. "I make $12,000 a year part-time," she said, "and I work very hard for my money."
Tuesday's results may drag out the race for the GOP nomination, but political observers said they still expect Romney to be the party's pick.
"Before the others call 'uncle,' I think it could be another couple of months," University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said.
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