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Rick Santorum Still Kicking After Strong Super Tuesday Showing

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STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- Rick Santorum entered Super Tuesday on the ropes, with Mitt Romney poised to land a knockout blow.

That never happened. The fatal punch never came, because Romney couldn't deliver it. And for an hour or two, it looked like the former Massachusetts governor might himself be knocked backwards, but he avoided a very bad night by narrowly winning Ohio, after trailing Santorum there for much of the night.

Santorum won Oklahoma, which was expected, but then he also took Tennessee, where it was thought he might lose what had been a big lead, and then North Dakota, which he was not expected to win. As he took the lead in Ohio, he came out to tell supporters here in this Rust Belt town: "We are in this thing."

He ultimately lost Ohio by more than 10,000 votes. Romney was saved by Cincinnati and Cleveland, and the counties around the two cities, and took home 453,428 votes to Santorum's 441,500, with 99.4 percent of the vote counted.

Romney also won his home state of Massachusetts, the neighboring state of Vermont, Idaho, and Virginia, where he competed only with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), since neither Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) qualified for the ballot there. Alaska's results began to trickle in around 1 a.m.

But even in Romney's Virginia win, there was a red flag. Romney won 60 percent of the vote but Paul won 40 percent, a significant show of resistance to Romney. And as a result of Santorum's stronger-than-expected showing overall, he will remain a significant player in the primary.

"It's a major victory. And I think it really resets this race," Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who switched his endorsement from Romney to Santorum in February, said of Santorum's multiple wins and close finish in Ohio.

To transition from factor to full-blown Romney rival, Santorum will have to win some contests over the next week and a half. Even then, he'll face a significant math challenge on the delegate count. The Romney campaign will focus its message on those numbers, where Romney now leads with roughly 415 delegates to Santorum's 176 delegates, according to an Associated Press count.

Romney's win in Ohio "is going to prevent total meltdown," one Republican operative told The Huffington Post. But it won't prevent Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, from gaining a renewed head of steam.

How far that momentum goes will play out over the next several days and weeks. But there are two things working in Santorum's favor.

First, the calendar over the next week or two favors him. Kansas will hold caucuses on Saturday, along with Guam, the Northern Marianas and the Virgin Islands. Then, next Tuesday, Mississippi and Alabama hold primaries, where Santorum can score two significant wins. Next Missouri, where Santorum already won a non-binding straw poll vote on Feb. 7, holds caucuses on March 17 that will actually have an impact on who wins the state's 52 delegates.

"We're going to play well in the South. I think our message resonates very well and I think we got a good shot," said Santorum's campaign manager, Mike Biundo.

Second, Santorum is hitting his stride with a message hitting Romney hard on his health care overhaul in Massachusetts.

"This is an election about fundamental liberty," Santorum said, calling President Barack Obama's health care overhaul "the beginning of the end of freedom in America."

"There is only one candidate who can go out on the most important issue of the day and make the case, because I've never been for an individual mandate, at a state or federal level," Santorum said, to chants of "Rick, Rick, Rick."

"I've never passed a statewide government health care system," he said. "Governor Romney did."

If Santorum wins races over the next week, his message will get more exposure. And if calls increase for Gingrich to leave the race, despite his win in Georgia, Romney will be close to the two-man race he has managed to avoid so far.

Senior Santorum adviser John Brabender told HuffPost before results came in that if Gingrich finished "third in all the southern states except Georgia, the path is for him to move aside and let us have a one-on-one shot with Romney."

"We have not been shy about saying that if we can get a one-on-one shot with Romney, everything changes overnight. And that's their worst fear," Brabender said. "If you watch their strategy, they're very good at trying to keep everybody in the race."

Later in the night, he called on the GOP's conservative base to "rally" around Santorum.

But with Romney winning at least 132 delegates on Tuesday to pad his lead over Santorum, who had only 47 delegates by the same point in the night, Santorum will be hard-pressed to explain how he can argue there is a way for him to win the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley signaled that their campaign is prepared, as Gingrich has said he would be, to fight all the way to the GOP convention in Tampa this August.

"He's got to get to 1,144 too," Gidley said of Romney. "He wants us out because he knows he can't get there. If we all go to the convention with a certain amount of delegates and we have to figure something out at the convention then so be it."

But delegate experts already were throwing cold water on that argument before the night began. Josh Putnam, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College who has established himself as an authority on delegates, wrote Tuesday that Romney can reach the 1,144 mark.

"The bottom line here is that Romney has enough of a delegate advantage right now and especially coming out of today's contests that it is very unlikely that anyone will catch him, much less catch him and get to 1,144," Putnam wrote.

Santorum, speaking to supporters inside Steubenville High School, the main high school in a town minutes from the Pennsylvania border and just 70 miles from Santorum's home town of Butler, Pa., was defiant.

"Tonight it's clear. We've won races all over this country, against the odds, where they thought, 'Oh, he's finished,'" Santorum told the crowd. "We keep coming back."

On Wednesday, Santorum will campaign in Kansas and Mississippi, as the long GOP primary slogs on.

 
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