PHILIP ELLIOTT/Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - A Washington state victory in hand, Mitt Romney is looking ahead to Tuesday's 10-state bonanza that features contests from Alaska to Ohio to Massachusetts, millions in campaign spending and the largest single day of voting yet in the Republicans' topsy-turvy primary race.
The former Massachusetts governor won Saturday night's low-turnout caucuses, adding another win to his tally and gaining momentum in his drive to the Republican nomination. Leading in delegates to the national convention, Romney looked to defend his front-runner standing even while rivals Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul sought to keep their candidacies afloat.
"The voters of Washington have sent a signal that they do not want a Washington insider in the White House. They want a conservative businessman who understands the private sector and knows how to get the federal government out of the way so that the economy can once again grow vigorously," Romney said in a statement Saturday night before heading to Sunday campaign stops in Georgia and Tennessee.
Rick Santorum, in search of his first wins since Feb. 7, urged Ohio Republicans not to heed those who cast Romney as the inevitable nominee. He said the race was far from over, even as he was locked in a tight race in Washington state for second place with Paul.
"We need someone who can go out and make the case, not with the most money, but with the best ideas, the best vision, the best track record," Santorum said in Bowling Green, Ohio. "Go out and make this election about big things."
On Sunday, Santorum said in a televised interview that hardline conservatives could dominate the race if their support wasn't split between himself and Newt Gingrich. Santorum told "Fox News Sunday" that he and Gingrich were sharing the "anti-Romney vote," but that the race will "narrow over time" and allow him to pick up more steam.
He spoke before campaigning in Tennessee and Oklahoma, two states that could turn around his struggling, rag-tag campaign. He is far outpaced in organization and it's not clear he even has paid staff on the ground in the upcoming states.
Still, he was optimistic: "We've done amazingly well for a campaign that didn't have a lot of resources," he said.
Meanwhile, Gingrich blitzed the Sunday talk shows, appearing on four national morning programs but planned no campaign events with actual voters, reflecting his strategy of using media appearances to offset his advertising and organizational disadvantages. Gingrich, leading in the polls in his home state of Georgia, is looking for his first victory since his lone win in South Carolina on Jan. 21.
Gingrich called Georgia, his home state, "vital to the campaign" and said that despite a lot of money spent against him, "I think we're going to win decisively."
He acknowledged that a loss by any major candidate on his home turf would make it "very hard" for the campaign "to continue to move forward."
But, he told NBC's "Meet the Press," the race has had so many candidates surge to the top and then fall back and "I think we're coming back for a third time."
Gingrich also said that in the end, he has no doubt that those candidates who fall short of the nomination will unite behind the eventual nominee, despite the often tough rhetoric the contenders are throwing at each other during the campaign.
Gingrich said "people shouldn't be at all confused about that" and that the GOP's goal is to deny President Barack Obama a second term.
Gingrich agreed that he's running neck-in-neck with Santorum.
"I think the margin between Santorum and me has closed very dramatically in the last 10 days. And that's part of this competition is to get back to a position to be able to compete head-to-head with Romney," Gingrich said during an evening appearance in Bolwing Green, Ohio.
That dynamic - Romney versus a conservative alternative - has dominated the race to this point, as candidates have risen as Romney's chief rival and then collapsed under a barrage of spending and negative attacks. Santorum seemed to have settled into that role, but his scrappy campaign was set to be tested on its largest stage yet. The former senator from Pennsylvania lacks the infrastructure of his rivals and is being badly outspent.
But, perhaps a sign that money alone wouldn't determine the nominee, Santorum and Romney were in a close race in Ohio, seen as the crown jewel of Super Tuesday. Romney and Santorum maneuvered for their next showdown in that big industrial state.
Gingrich planned a 30-minute infomercial on statewide cable television, hoping to offset his relative absence and pick up a few delegates. Gingrich visited the Buckeye State for just one day.
Romney, by contrast, planned to spend every night before Tuesday in Ohio.
Paul, the Texas Republican and a favorite of his party's libertarian wing, also planned to hit two news shows and then campaign in Alaska.
With contests in 10 states and 419 delegates up for grabs, Tuesday was shaping up to be a hard-fought day that could settle - or shuffle - the quest for the Republican nomination.
There also are primaries in Massachusetts, where Romney was governor, and Virginia, where Gingrich and Santorum failed to qualify for the ballot. Other contests are in Vermont, North Dakota and Idaho.
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas in Bowling Green, Ohio, contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
3/4/2012 10:30:54 AM (GMT -5:00)