Mitt Romney, the frontrunner in the Republican presidential contest, struggled to prevail in the Super Tuesday Republican primary in Ohio amid continuing doubts over his ability to decisively crush his rivals.
After more than four hours of suspense, the former Massachusetts Governor finally won the delegates-rich state by one percentage point in the Super Tuesday contests of primaries and caucuses involving 10 states across the United States.
Ohio, which will be a battleground state in the general election in November, was the big prize on Tuesday with 66 delegates. The primary was fiercely contested by Rick Santorum, a former Senator from Pennsylvania who targeted its blue-collar voters by recalling his own working-class roots as the grandson of a coalminer. Santorum, who triumphed in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota, appealed to the party base by raising the profile of social issues such as abortion and birth control.
Romney had been trying to make the case that he is the conservative alternative to Santorum. In Ohio, 45 per cent of the population describe themselves as evangelical Christians and 31 per cent as "deeply conservative".
The close Ohio result, which gave Romney 38 per cent of the vote and 37 per cent to Santorum, suggested that Romney has not convinced the Republican base about his suitability to become president.
His inability to seal the deal is due to the multimillionaire's enduring failure to connect with the average voter, as demonstrated by an ever-increasing list of gaffes.
Sarah Palin, the former Alaska Governor whose state voted in caucuses yesterday, said on Fox News that his problem was "how to get the American voter enthused about him".
After Super Tuesday, the race could stretch at least until May, owing to the lack of a decisive win by Romney.
As expected, the former Governor won easily in his home state of Massachusetts, where he addressed supporters, and chalked up successes in Vermont, Virginia and Idaho. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won his own home state of Georgia, enabling him to stay in the race. His last win was in South Carolina on January 22.
Some analysts in the past few days have said that the longer the Republican race goes on, the less Romney will be able to claim the support of independent voters, whose support will be crucial in November. What's more, the American public actually doesn't like any of the four remaining candidates, as their protracted and bitter fight for the nomination has undermined their appeal, according to the latest poll in the Washington Post/ABC News.
Romney's slim victory was due in part to the huge sums of money spent by an allied Super-PAC committee which last week disbursed more than US$6 million - more than all the expenditure by the Super-PACs of all the other three candidates combined. The pro-Romney Restore our Future is now targeting the southern states of Mississippi and Alabama where primaries are held next week.
The key to Super Tuesday was to win a maximum number of the 419 delegates at stake (or 434 if state party super delegates are included). The 10 states provide one-third of the delegates who will go to the convention in Tampa, Florida.
Although jobs and the economy remain the prime voter concern, the drumbeat of war on Iran emerged as a campaign issue thanks to a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
With the polls still showing that Obama would beat either Romney or Santorum in November, the President staged his own Super Tuesday surprise: his first news conference this year during which he took questions on issues ranging from the economy to Iran's nuclear programme.
He dismissed suggestions from the Republican camp that he favoured raising petrol prices as part of a bid to wean Americans from fossil fuels onto renewable energy. "Do you think the President of the United States going into re-election wants gas prices to go up higher?" he joked.
Asked by a reporter what he would say to Romney after his criticism of the Administration's Iran policy, and his accusation that Obama is "the most feckless President since [Jimmy] Carter," the President laughed and replied that he would wish him: "Good luck tonight. No, really."By Anne Penketh