WASHINGTON — It may not be pretty. It may not be a love fest. But Mitt Romney is starting to inch away from the pack in his drive for the Republican presidential nomination.
He does not have it yet. He lost several states Tuesday and will continue to face tests in weeks ahead, such as next week when the campaign heads south for primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, the kind of deeply conservative states where he has not found favor.
Yet his wins in several states Tuesday and competitive finishes in others added to his growing lead among the delegates needed to win the nomination, as chief rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich continued to divide the anti-Romney vote.
His victories sent the campaign forward to a new phase where the political map and his strengths in money and organization will make it harder for his rivals to stop him.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“Everything gets easier for Romney,” said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “The math is easier for Romney, the fundraising is easier, running a multi-state campaign is easier.”
Romney won more than half the delegates up for grabs Tuesday in 10 states, ending the day with 415 and pulling well ahead of his competitors. His lead over nearest rival Santorum swelled from 111 delegates to 239 delegates, according to The Associated Press. His lead over Gingrich jumped from 170 to 310. And his lead over Rep. Ron Paul of Texas grew from 178 to 368 delegates.
His rivals must win a majority of the delegates left to deny him the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
That's possible — but more difficult with each passing week, as the field of opportunity shrinks.
Looking ahead, Romney is the early favorite in 11 states with a total of 571 delegates up for grabs. Most are on the coasts — including California, New York and New Jersey — or in the West, including Utah and Wyoming.
He's a likely underdog in 12 states with a total of 668 delegates. Most are deeply conservative states in the South, plus Texas and Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania.
And he'll face five states with 159 delegates now considered tossups by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oregon, South Dakota and Montana.
Denying Romney a majority would be one thing.
One candidate such as Santorum winning a majority by himself would be even harder, as long as Gingrich and Paul continue to win some delegates themselves. The longer they stay in the campaign and divide the anti-Romney vote, the easier it is for him to win the plurality, if not a majority, of delegates.
As of Wednesday, Santorum needs to win 63 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination. Gingrich needs to win 67 percent. Paul needs 71 percent. Romney needs 47 percent.
Santorum's wins in Oklahoma and Tennessee Tuesday might not have been enough to start gaining on Romney, but were enough of an emotional boost to keep the former senator from Pennsylvania going.
Similarly, Gingrich's victory in his former home state of Georgia could not give him enough delegates to gain ground, but gave a shot of political adrenaline for the former House speaker.
"It is gratifying to win my home state so decisively to launch our March Momentum," he said in a tweet.
Whether they can parlay those wins into more campaign contributions remains to be seen.
More likely, Romney will continue to enjoy the huge advantage in money and campaign muscle that's enabled him to win in states where he otherwise might have lost.
In Ohio, for example, he badly trailed Santorum in the polls two weeks ago. But he and the political action committee supporting him opened the checkbook, flooded the airwaves with ads slamming Santorum, and brought the polls back to even. Santorum said Tuesday he was outspent in Ohio 12-to-1.
Overall, Romney and the pro-Romney "super" political action committee spent $86 million through Jan. 31, according to the Federal Election Commission. Santorum and his PAC spent $10.4 million.
Romney also has had the experienced national campaign staff in place for months, planning well ahead for every state.
That depth paid off Tuesday in Virginia, where Romney was able to sweep the state against Paul, as Gingrich and Santorum both failed to do the field work late last year needed to get on the ballot.
It also helped In Ohio, where Santorum failed to file full slates of delegates in all of the state's congressional districts, costing him any chance at as many as 18 delegates.
Romney also could start to benefit from a bandwagon effect if more and more Republicans start to look on him as the eventual winner.
A new Rasmussen poll Tuesday found that 65 percent of all likely voters think Romney will win his party's nomination, up from 54 percent a week before. At the same time, the ranks of people who think Santorum will win the title dropped from 24 percent to 14 percent.
"The momentum is with Romney," former candidate Mike Huckabee said Monday before the Tuesday voting. "Rick Santorum has a very solid level of support there, so it could go either way. But if the trend continues ... that we've started to see with Romney, sort of bringing people together as people are saying, 'OK, look, if he' going to win, let's go ahead and get behind him.'"
Underscoring the potential bandwagon effect: The hunger among some Republicans to wrap up an overwhelmingly negative campaign.
Even while racking up delegates, for example, Romney's suffered in the eyes of the broader public. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found that 39 percent of Americans have a negative impression of him while 28 percent had a favorable impression.
Former first lady Barbara Bush on Monday called it "the worst campaign I've ever seen in my life," according to the Dallas Morning News.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington