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It was the biggest day yet in the Republican presidential race. Mitt Romney hoped that Super Tuesday would reinforce his frontrunner status. And to some degree it did. He won six of the 10 states, including the most populous and hotly contested state, Ohio.
The win in Ohio was by the narrowest of margins, though, and there was enough good news for Romney's rivals to keep them in the running as well. So even in victory, the Romney campaign could not dispel lingering doubts about his candidacy. NPR's Ari Shapiro was at Romney headquarters in Boston.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: An election night as big as Super Tuesday requires an election party that's bigger than normal too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
SHAPIRO: No DJ at Mitt Romney's rally in Boston. A live band played pop hits like "Party in the USA," "Don't Stop Believing," and "Play that Funky Music White Boy." The crowd shouted: Go, Mitt, go.
GROUP: Go, Mitt, go. Go, Mitt, go. Go, Mitt, go.
SHAPIRO: Their exuberance belied the mixed results streaming in on giant screens. Early on, Newt Gingrich won Georgia. Rick Santorum took Tennessee and Oklahoma. Romney won Massachusetts, where he used to be governor, neighboring Vermont, and Virginia, where only he and Ron Paul were on the ballot. Yet Romney focused almost all of his energy in the last week on Ohio. And by the time Romney took the podium in Boston, that state still hung in the balance.
MITT ROMNEY: Your support means everything to Ann and me. And I'm not going to let you down. I'm going to get this nomination.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
SHAPIRO: Romney fought hard for Ohio's blue collar working class voters - people like retired steelworker Joe Buckmelter, who voted in Steubenville.
JOE BUCKMELTER: I actually do like all the candidates. I wish we could take a compilation of all three. Put Mitt Romney's – I think his forthrightness, Rick Santorum's genuineness, and Newt Gingrich's fire. But I think in the final analysis that Mitt's going to be the strongest.
SHAPIRO: In the last week, Romney shrank Rick Santorum's wide lead in Ohio. He did it partly by outspending his rivals by a 4-1 margin. At the election night party in Boston, Margaret Klingmeyer worried that even a deluge of cash could not wholly sink Romney's rivals.
MARGARET KLINGMEYER: That concerns me, but hopefully as it narrows down, he'll be able to concentrate. And I think he's the real leader.
SHAPIRO: Ohio will be an important swing state in the general election. And the fact that Romney barely squeaked out a win there revives old questions about whether he can unify the Republican Party behind him. Romney prefers to play down the symbolism and focus on cold hard math.
ROMNEY: Tonight we're doing some counting. We're counting up the delegates for the convention, and it looks good. And we're counting down the days until November, and that looks even better.
SHAPIRO: Focusing on delegates lets Romney emphasize what the campaign describes as the other candidates' disorganization. Romney staffers are quick to point out that Rick Santorum did not qualify to compete for all of Ohio's delegates. Santorum failed to get on the Virginia ballot at all. Romney campaign strategist Mark DeMoss says while it may be tempting to glorify a scrappy grassroots campaign like Santorum's, Democrats would crush that sort of operation in November.
MARK DEMOSS: We're not going against a scrappy pick-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps kind of campaign if we run against President Obama. So I think the organization is critically important. It's important to line up endorsements, to raise money, to turn volunteers out.
BORIS MAKARENKO: And he says Santorum has shown an inability to do that. The flip side of that argument is that the Romney campaign lost key states despite the endorsements, the money, the volunteers, and the infrastructure. In Boston last night, Romney said there will be good days and bad days ahead.
ROMNEY: Tomorrow we wake up and we start again. And the next day we'll do the same. And so we'll go day by day, step by step, door by door, heart to heart.
SHAPIRO: For the next few contests, the bad days may outnumber the good ones for Romney. The next states to vote include Mississippi, Alabama, and Kansas, places with the kinds of religious, socially conservative voters that Romney has struggled to win over.
Yet on a Super Tuesday that produced mixed results for him, there was one thing Romney could be unequivocally happy about. Last night was his first night home in two months. He said he was looking forward to a homemade dinner of chicken marsala.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.