WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential campaign spreads out across 10 states Tuesday — Super Tuesday — a coast-to-coast test that could allow front-runner Mitt Romney to start pulling away from his persistent rivals.
Challengers Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul each have a shot at victories in selected corners of the Tuesday map, and each should win some delegates.
But Romney's well-moneyed political machine will allow him to compete everywhere, and the landscape suggests a broad win for the former governor of Massachusetts.
He'll start the day with two states all but locked up — Massachusetts, his home state, and Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot. He'll have an organizational advantage fighting Santorum for delegates in Ohio. And he'll look to deliver delegates in smaller, less-watched states such as Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota and Vermont, where his chief competition comes from Paul.
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Combined, Romney could add to the lead he already enjoys in the all-important tally of delegates needed to win the nomination.
He leads the field with 203 delegates, according to the Associated Press. Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, has 92. Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, has 33. Paul, a congressman from Texas, has 25.
On Tuesday, 419 more delegates are at stake, more than the total awarded in all previous contests so far and the most of any single day this year. The 10 states holding caucuses and primaries to award those delegates: Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.
With Romney already leading in the delegate count, the critical test for his challengers is to win more delegates than he does, regardless of how many states' popular votes any candidate wins.
"This is now about delegates," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "You don't get to be president by winning moral victories."
On Tuesday, Romney's rivals essentially spot him delegates before the voting even starts. He has an overwhelming lead in Massachusetts, which has 41 delegates available. He also leads by large margins in Virginia, where he faces only Paul for the state's 49 delegates.
Santorum is banking on wins in Oklahoma, with 43 delegates up for grabs, and Tennessee, with 58. He's also hoping to score in Ohio, which is drawing the most intense attention, not least because it's a crucial battleground in November.
"Here in the heartland, our campaign is within striking distance of pulling off another string of victories on Super Tuesday," Santorum told supporters Monday via email. "Despite being outspent 12-1 by the Romney machine, we are polling ahead in Oklahoma, Tennessee and (are) neck and neck in Ohio."
Romney has an organizational edge in Ohio, where Santorum failed to file names of pro-Santorum delegates in all districts. He sacrifices any chance at nine delegates and could cede another nine — more than a quarter of the state's 66.
Gingrich leads in his former home state of Georgia. Romney's a distant second, hoping to win some of the state's 76 delegates in congressional districts in and around Atlanta.
Romney also could win a plurality or a majority of the 145 delegates available in smaller states largely overlooked by rival campaigns and the media.
In North Dakota, Romney hosted a rally at a Fargo factory last week.
"When they come here it's a big deal," said Vickie Piepkorn, a Fargo grocery store cashier.
"Romney has been here a lot, and that helps," said state Rep. Blair Thoreson, who is undecided. "It also helps that he keeps mentioning his father, and how he started with very little."
In Idaho, Romney drew such a large crowd in Idaho Falls last week that organizers had to create an overflow room, which also was packed.
For many, the specifics were less important than their affection for Romney. "Santorum is great, but I just like Romney better," said Barbara Peterson, a Shelley retiree. "He's tough. He knows how to deal with people," added Shirley Wilkinson, an Ashton teacher's aide.
The economy is still a concern to people in Idaho. Marjorie Hooper and her husband have a honey business in Rigby. Her husband drives about 800 miles to California to take the bees to a warmer climate, and with fuel prices up, the price of his products has to go up, too.
Two years ago, a 12-ounce jar of Hooper's Honey cost about $2.50. Today it's at least 50 cents more.
No politician has the answer, Hooper said, "but I think Romney has the experience. I'd rather have somebody who's been out there in the workforce."
Romney has another advantage in Idaho: A large Mormon population, and proximity to Utah, where he's well known and liked.
Romney's met somewhat more resistance in other Western states, largely from Paul.
Paul drew crowds Sunday of about 1,000 in Fairbanks and 1,200 more in Anchorage. Tuesday, he plans to visit Nampa, Idaho, and Fargo, N. D., during its caucus.
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