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Romney begins to pull away and pile up a delegate advantage

By Steven Thomma, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — It may not be pretty. It may not be a love fest. But Mitt Romney is starting to pull away from the pack in his drive for the Republican presidential nomination.

He does not have it yet. He lost several states Tuesday and will continue to face tests in weeks ahead, such as next week when the campaign heads south for primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, the kind of deeply conservative states where he has not found favor.

Yet his wins in several states Tuesday and competitive finishes in others added to his growing lead among the delegates needed to win the nomination, as chief rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich continued to divide the anti-Romney vote.

His victories sent the campaign forward to a new phase where the political map and his strengths in money and organization will make it harder for his rivals to stop him.

“This is a process of gathering enough delegates to become the nominee, and I think we’re on track to have that happen,” Romney said Tuesday after voting in Massachusetts.

With half of Super Tuesday’s delegates counted, Romney’s lead over nearest rival Santorum had grown from 111 delegates to 193 delegates, according to The Associated Press. His lead over Gingrich had grown from 170 to 257. And his lead over Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had grown from 178 to 297 delegates.

His rivals must win a majority of the delegates left to deny him the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

That’s possible — but more difficult with each passing week, as the field of opportunity shrinks.

Looking ahead, Romney is the early favorite in 11 states with a total of 571 delegates up for grabs. Most are on the coasts — including California, New York and New Jersey — or in the West, including Utah and Wyoming.

He’s a likely underdog in 12 states with a total of 668 delegates. Most are deeply conservative states in the South, plus Texas and Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania.

And he’ll face five states with 159 delegates now considered tossups by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota and Montana.

Santorum’s wins in Oklahoma and Tennessee Tuesday might not have been enough to start gaining on Romney, but were enough of an emotional boost to keep the former senator from Pennsylvania going.

Similarly, Gingrich’s victory in his former home state of Georgia could not give him enough delegates to gain ground, but gave a shot of political adrenaline for the former House speaker.

“It is gratifying to win my home state so decisively to launch our March Momentum,” he said in a tweet.

Whether they can parlay those wins into more campaign contributions remains to be seen.

More likely, Romney will continue to enjoy the huge advantage in money and campaign muscle that’s enabled him to win in states where he otherwise might have lost.

Romney also could start to benefit from a bandwagon effect if more and more Republicans start to look on him as the eventual winner.

A new Rasmussen poll Tuesday found that 65 percent of all likely voters think Romney will win his party’s nomination, up from 54 percent a week before. At the same time, the ranks of people who think Santorum will win the title dropped from 24 percent to 14 percent.

“The momentum is with Romney,” former candidate Mike Huckabee said the day before Super Tuesday. “Rick Santorum has a very solid level of support there, so it could go either way. But if the trend continues … that we’ve started to see with Romney, sort of bringing people together as people are saying, ‘OK, look, if he’ going to win, let’s go ahead and get behind him.’ ”

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