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.
"If he's inevitable, he'll get where he needs to go," Scala said. "I don't know he's in worse shape than if it ended tomorrow. I think the cracks in the party base have already been exposed."
Another Ohio State University political science professor, Nathaniel Swigger, said at this point in the race, "momentum doesn’t matter as much as delegate accumulation. We know who the frontrunner is."
Extending the race will cost the campaigns more money and effort, Swigger said, but there's an upside. "It gets Republican voters excited," he said. "That could pay off in November."
Swigger said the race should still be settled before the GOP convention in Tampa in August, calling the chances of another candidate being drafted as the nominee "a very, very slim possibility" that party leaders want to avoid.
"There's so much potential for disaster there, I really don't think that's going to happen," he said. "The party's biggest fear is a brokered convention."
One of Romney's key campaign surrogates, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Romney is taking away what counts from Super Tuesday, the most delegates.
"It's all about the delegates," Chaffetz said. "The only thing that will matter in August in Tampa is delegates. Nobody will remember what percentage somebody got in a certain state."
He said it's no surprise the race will continue.
"If Romney had run the table tonight, sure it would have been over. But it's never that easy," Chaffetz said, pointing to the 2008 battle for the Democratic nomination between Obama and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Romney left Ohio early in the day Tuesday for Massachusetts, where he served as governor and now calls home. Despite a big win in that state's primary, his speech to supporters in Boston had a somewhat somber tone.
"Tomorrow we wake up and we start again," Romney said, and continue the campaign "day by day, step by step, door to door, heart to heart." He warned that they face bad days along with the good.
Voter Sam Selvage said he doesn't understand why his fellow Republicans can't get behind Romney as their presidential choice.
"I think Romney is our guy," Selvage said.
Selvage said Romney's business background is what the party needs in a candidate, not Santorum's strong stands on social issues.
"He has experience and knowledge about how to fix the economy," Selvage said, "and get us on the right path. I don’t think the other candidates have that. He's best for our country."
Santorum, Selvage said, "is a little too far right as far as taking away the right of families to make decisions about how they're going to produce their family."
He said, however, as a financial aide officer at the Lutheran-owned Capital College just outside of Columbus, he respects Santorum's beliefs.47 comments on this story
Selvage said Romney spoke movingly on campus recently about his family and his faith. He suggested Romney should show that side of himself more often to counter concerns he can't relate to most voters.
"If he can show he has a heart, he can overcome that," Selvage said.
Obama supporter Wendi Malick, a project manager, said the continued fighting among the Republican candidates is making it easier for the Democrats to keep the White House.
"They're hitting each very hard and I'm tired of it," Malick said. "I think it's like watching a circus and I think you see that in the results, why there's not one clear-cut candidate."