- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mitt Romney extended his lead in delegates in the Republican presidential nomination fight this week, but his hopes of avoiding a contested convention dimmed slightly after third-place finishes in Tuesday night’s two biggest contests.

While the former Massachusetts governor won the most delegates overall in Alabama, Mississippi, Hawaii and American Samoa, his three opponents — Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul — combined to win nearly 60 percent of the delegates awarded on Tuesday. Every night that Mr. Romney wins less than an outright majority makes it tougher for him to capture the magic number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination before the August convention in Tampa.

“With a handful more delegates off the table, the math got ever so slightly more difficult for Romney and even more impossible for Santorum,” said Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina who runs Frontloading HQ, a blog about the primary race. “Santorum went from impossible to still impossible, and Romney lost a little bit of cushion after last night.”

Mr. Santorum scored the biggest headlines out of the four contests on Tuesday by winning the popular vote in the two primaries in the Deep South. But Mr. Romney still walked away with more delegates after he won all of the delegates in American Samoa’s caucuses and nearly half the delegates in Hawaii’s caucuses, while he essentially split the Alabama and Mississippi primaries with Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum.

Mr. Romney’s delegate count climbed to 495 in the latest Associated Press tally, putting him well ahead of Mr. Santorum, 252, Mr. Gingrich, 131, and Mr. Paul, 48.

The updated leader board underscored the difficult time any of the former Massachusetts governor’s rivals will have trying to catch up to him or collect the 1,144 delegates needed to wrap up the nomination.

“The delegate math still favors Romney, but that is today,” said Keith Appell, a GOP strategist. “If Santorum gets on a roll and really picks up momentum, he could change the entire perception of the race — at which point we will find out whether Romney’s support is strong and intense or is fragile and fickle.”

Still, barring a major shift in momentum, the only realistic hope for the other candidates is to combine for more than 50 percent of the delegates, which would block Mr. Romney from winning the nomination on the first ballot in Tampa. The candidates then would fight it out on the floor of the national convention.

“Keeping Romney under 1,144 is the only play that Santorum and/or Gingrich have left,” Mr. Putnam said.

Mr. Gingrich delivered that same argument as the results trickled in Tuesday, telling ABC News that one of the reasons he plans on sticking in the race is to stop Mr. Romney from winning the delegates needed to become the party’s presidential standard-bearer.

“We’re actually helping because between us … Santorum and I are stopping Romney,” Mr. Gingrich said, noting later in his election-night speech that “in both [Southern] states the conservative candidates got nearly 70 percent of the vote.”

Exit polls showed that a majority of those who identified themselves as “very conservative,” strong supporters of the tea-party movement and evangelical/born-again Christians cast their vote for someone other than Mr. Romney — continuing a monthslong trend where Mr. Romney has had trouble wooing deeply conservative voters in the Deep South and Midwest.

Mr. Romney addressed those concerns in a Fox interview on Wednesday, arguing that those voters will move in his direction when he wins the nomination.

“Some who are very conservative may not be yet in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee when I face Barack Obama,” he said.

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