By THOMAS BEAUMONT, ASSOCIATED PRESS
ATLANTA — Mitt Romney is angling to solidify his front-runner status and Rick Santorum to keep it a two-man race as voters in 10 states put Super Tuesday's imprint on the Republican presidential race. Newt Gingrich just hopes to keep his struggling campaign alive with a strong showing in Georgia.
Voters who turned out early Tuesday at one polling place in suburban Cincinnati made clear that all the candidates still have some convincing to do: Polling officials in Anderson Township said many people were asking for issues-only ballots and skipping the presidential voting altogether.
"I don't like the way the Republicans have gone after each other, and the Democrats aren't any better," said one of them, accountant Chuck Horning.
With 419 delegates at stake around the country, Tuesday's voting represents a sizable slice of the 1,144 needed to nail down the GOP nomination.
Romney, who turned back Santorum in a close contest in Michigan last week, hoped to continue his winning trend. He has won four consecutive contests, including Saturday's Washington caucuses.
The GOP front-runner, trying to keep his focus on President Barack Obama, was using a speech Tuesday before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to argue he'd be more effective at containing Iran's nuclear ambitions. In prepared remarks, Romney said the Obama administration's "naive outreach to Iran gave the ayatollahs exactly what they wanted."
The president, for his part, showed he had no intention of ceding the spotlight to his GOP challengers. Obama scheduled his first full news conference of the year for Tuesday afternoon, and planned to announce a new program to address the housing crisis, part of his ongoing effort to show he's working aggressively to help the economy recover.
Priorities USA Action, a super PAC backing the president, trained its criticism solely on Romney, issuing a "Super Tuesday memo" arguing that the front-runner's "agenda for the wealthy" was hurting him with those who are not.
Supporters of the candidates were out in force to make the case for their favored candidates.
Romney backer Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said it was time for the party to close ranks behind the former Massachusetts governor.
"The party is starting to understand the need to coalesce behind somebody, that what does unite us is beating Barack Obama," Chaffetz said on CNN. "Mitt Romney has by far the best chance of beating Barack Obama in November, and we've got to get united in that sooner rather than later."
Karen Santorum, in a taped interviewed on CBS, sketched her husband as a solid father and strong supporter of women, trying to counter impressions he wasn't supportive of broad opportunities for women. She said she couldn't even think about what it would be like to be first lady, saying, "I still don't even go there."
After falling behind Santorum in Ohio last month, Romney has closed the gap in recent days, with polls showing the race a dead heat on the eve of the primary. It's a familiar trend for Romney, whose superior fundraising and turnout operation have helped him turn deficits in Florida and Michigan into triumphs.
The former venture capital executive kept his campaign's focus on the economy in a final sprint across Ohio, where he and Santorum are competing most fiercely.
"Other people in this race have debated about the economy, they've read about the economy, they've talked about it in subcommittee hearings," Romney said of his opponents. "But I've actually been in it. I've worked in business and I understand what it takes to get a business successful and to thrive."
Romney, the New Englander in the race, is expected to do well in the Vermont and Massachusetts primaries. He is also poised to win the Virginia primary.
Besides Ohio, Santorum is competing most aggressively in primaries in Oklahoma and Tennessee, where the GOP's conservative hue matches the strict social conservative's evangelical appeal. He was leading narrowly in Tennessee, where polls showed Gingrich and Romney closing.
Despite signs that Gingrich planned to remain in the race, Santorum urged voters in Ohio to see it as increasingly a two-candidate fight.
"I'm excited that we're here with the opportunity of winning states on Super Tuesday ... and, hopefully, eventually, having the opportunity to go one on one at the end of this thing and see where this race really falls out," Santorum told supporters in Miamisville, Ohio. "And when we do, we'll win."
Gingrich has won only one state – the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary – and was projected to win only Georgia out of the 10 states voting Tuesday. He began advertising in Tennessee on Monday, putting down just $35,000 for television time, a small purchase.
Yet, Gingrich planned to campaign Tuesday in Alabama, which holds its primary March 13, even before the voting was finished in Georgia. Ads for Gingrich were expected to begin airing in Alabama and Mississippi, which holds its primary on the same day, and he will visit both Southern states later in the week. He was then heading to Kansas, which holds its caucuses Saturday.
Still, Gingrich tried to cast a likely win in Georgia as a sign of momentum, comparing it to Romney's narrow win in his native Michigan over Santorum last week.
At a breakfast meeting of a suburban Atlanta chamber of commerce, Gingrich criticized his rivals as mere managers, rather than leaders of the change he recommends.
"The truth is I have opponents who are, in a normal period, adequate," he told more than 100 in Gwinnett, Ga. "But they don't have anything on the scale of change I just described to you."
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was focusing on Tuesday's caucuses in Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota.
Despite the big chunk of votes being cast Tuesday, because delegates are apportioned based on vote percentage and the candidates are focusing on different regions, the race is expected to continue further into March.