The Mitt Romney campaign moved aggressively yesterday to claim that victories in six out of 10 states on Super Tuesday means none of the rival candidates can amass the delegates they need to stop him capturing the nomination.
But the propaganda blast, made in memos, briefings to reporters and television appearances by the candidate, was countered by a new outbreak of hand-wringing from the conservative wing of the party asking why Romney did not perform more convincingly, losing three states to Rick Santorum and one to Newt Gingrich.
It was the extremely narrow victory in the important state of Ohio that sparked the most anguished debate. While a loss here would have been far more serious for Romney, the fact that he managed a mere one percentage point margin over Santorum after outspending him by at least four to one raised familiar questions about his candidacy. Why does he seem unable to seal the deal? Where was the Super Tuesday knockout punch?
"He may have the math," National Democratic Committee member Robert Zimmerman said, "but he has lost the momentum."
Dan Schnur, a Republican and campaign adviser to John McCain before the last election, also saw a mixed outcome.
"The good news for Romney is that he is still the front-runner. The bad news is that the doubts about his candidacy are only going to grow stronger."
If there was urgency in the messaging from Camp Romney it was also because the next stretch looks rocky. Caucus voting in Kansas on Sunday followed by contests next week in Mississippi and Alabama give fresh openings for Santorum, who has ample reason to declare himself the only viable alternative.
Illinois, voting on March 21, is also a state where Romney might trip up.
A Romney memo laid out why it is impossible for anyone to catch up in the delegate count - Romney has 415 delegates while Santorum owns 176, Newt Gingrich 105 and Ron Paul 47 - but failed to say how he hopes to gain the 1144 needed to clinch the nomination.
"Super Tuesday dramatically reduced the likelihood that any of Governor Romney's opponents can obtain the Republican nomination," the memo said.
"As Governor Romney's opponents attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, the only person's chance of winning they are improving is President Obama's."
That Romney addressed the chatter that the race may not be settled before the convention in Tampa was an admission of weakness.
"One thing I can tell you for sure," he said on CNBC, "is there's not going to be a brokered convention where some new person comes in and becomes the nominee."
Conservative bloggers rushed to puncture the Romney balloon. "Were I Mitt Romney I'd be wondering how I spent 5.5 times as much money as Rick Santorum and barely won Ohio," wrote Erick Erickson of the conservative blog RedState.
Exit polls in Ohio and Tennessee showed four in 10 voters were unsatisfied with the candidates they picked. The polls had Santorum heavily outscoring Romney among evangelical Christians, rural conservatives and blue collar Republicans.
But Santorum's case for crowing was also weak. If he had taken Ohio it might have been different.
"For Romney, a win is a win," Peter Brown, of Quinnipiac polling, said. "Finishing a close second in Ohio is nice for Santorum, but second is second. What's his argument to donors? 'I can finish a close second?"'
- IndependentBy David Usborne