Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, eager to shift his focus toward taking on President Obama, struggled again on Tuesday to create distance between himself and one of his rivals for the Republican nomination, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
Romney, the favorite in the GOP nomination race, won six of the ten states that held contests on Tuesday, while Santorum won three. But Santorum’s wins are likely to encourage him to continue his campaign, despite the consternation of many Republicans who want to unite the party behind Romney, and start focusing on Obama.
Much like in 2008, when Hillary Clinton continued her race against Obama long after she had a true chance to win, Santorum has little chance of overtaking Romney in the count for delegates in the nomination process, but may be winning enough to justify his continued candidacy to the campaign donors who support him.
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The primaries were another illustration of the divide within the Republican Party. Romney won in more liberal states such as Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as Virginia, where only he and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) qualified for the ballot, and in caucuses in Idaho and Alaska. His most important victory was a narrow win in Ohio, where Santorum had led in most polls before Tuesday.
But on the strength of the votes of Tea Party and evangelical Republicans, who have been reluctant to back Romney, Santorum won primaries in Oklahoma and Tennessee, as well as a caucus in North Dakota.
Romney remains in the lead among delegates. A total of 1,144 delegates are required in order to win the Republican nomination, and Romney emerged well ahead of Santorum after Tuesday. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) remain much further behind.
Gingrich won only in Georgia, the state he represented for years in Congress.
The campaign now heads to Kansas for a caucus on Saturday, and then to Alabama and Mississippi next Tuesday for primaries. All three states have large conservative populations that might be resistant to Romney.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr