Mitt Romney is hoping to see off his main rival Rick Santorum
3:21am UK, Wednesday March 07, 2012
Mitt Romney has scored three early victories in the Super Tuesday polls, which are likely to prove decisive in the contest to be the Republican Party’s presidential candidate.
Mr Romney won in Massachusetts – where he used to be governor – and in Virginia and Vermont.
His closest rival, Rick Santorum, was the winner in Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, in need of a victory to get him back into the White House race, won in his home state of Georgia.
“Thank you Georgia! It is gratifying to win my home state so decisively to launch our March Momentum,” Mr Gingrich said in a message on his Twitter account.
According to exit polls, the 68-year-old took 45% of the Georgia vote, compared to 26% for Mr Romney and 20% for former Pennsylvania senator Mr Santorum.
Texan congressman Ron Paul was trailing in fourth place with 8% of the vote.
The US media said the contest in the pivotal Rust Belt state of Ohio was too close to call.
A CNN poll found voters split down the middle, with Mr Romney and Mr Santorum both on 39%.
With 50% of the vote counted, however, Mr Santorum was leading by 39% to 36%.
Super Tuesday gives Mr Romney his best chance to take command of the race and build an unassailable lead.
On the biggest day so far in the contest to find a challenger to President Barack Obama, 419 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination are at stake.
Primaries are being held in Ohio, Georgia, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and caucuses in Idaho, North Dakota and Alaska.
Mr Romney, who had the advantage after winning four contests in a row, has characterised the race in Ohio as a “battle for the soul of America”.
A win there and a good showing in the other states would make him the favourite to gain the Republican nomination and go head-to-head with Mr Obama, a Democrat, in November’s election.
Talking to supporters in Cuyahoga Falls on Monday night, Mr Santorum admitted: “It’s gut check time, Who wants it the most? I’m a fighter and a scrapper.”
Elsewhere, Mr Paul is hoping for his first win in Alaska.
Mr Romney had sought to keep the focus on Mr Obama’s handling of the US economy and foreign policy in the run-up to the voting and played up his real-life experience.
“Other people in this race have debated about the economy, they’ve read about the economy, they’ve talked about it in subcommittee meetings. But I’ve actually been in it,” he said.
But Mr Santorum declared that, no matter how much Mr Romney spends on campaigning “conservatives will not trust him” and “will not rally around him this primary season”.
Mr Obama is hoping to grab some of the Super Tuesday spotlight for himself by scheduling a rare White House news conference.
He has seen his poll numbers rise amid signs the US economy may finally be moving towards a sustained recovery.
A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released on Monday suggested he would defeat all of the Republican candidates in hypothetical head-to-heads.