Looking past Super Tuesday
02:10 - Source: CNN

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Story highlights

Mitt Romney wins most Super Tuesday states, but fails to score with Appalachian voters

Rick Santorum wins three states, but lack of organization may prove to be his downfall

Newt Gingrich wins home state, but fails to win in Tennessee, Oklahoma

Sarah Palin plans to be at GOP convention, but remains mum on political future

CNN  — 

Mitt Romney scored a major victory by taking Ohio, but Rick Santorum continued to defy the odds by winning several contests on Super Tuesday as the race for the Republican presidential nomination now moves to Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi and beyond.

In a late-night nail-biter, Romney came away with an Ohio win that he hopes will help him overwrite the narrative that he is incapable of connecting with blue-collar voters.

Romney inches forward

While it was another disappointing loss for Santorum in a state in which he was expected to perform well, the former Pennsylvania senator did pocket victories in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota. It is the mistakes that greatly hurt him.

Super Tuesday was supposed to be about Romney, Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, but they had to share the headlines with Sarah Palin and President Barack Obama.

Palin’s willingness to talk about her political future and Obama’s ability to draw the spotlight were very important on this day as voters in 10 more states became the latest to weigh in on this battle for the GOP nomination.

1. Palin leaves door ajar: Palin has been relatively quiet about her future political plans in recent months – until Tuesday night when she wouldn’t rule out a White House run or, gasp, agreeing to be an eleventh-hour consensus candidate if there is an open convention this summer in Tampa.

“As I say, anything is possible,” Palin said in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Paul Vercammen at her Wasilla, Alaska, caucus site. “I don’t close any doors that perhaps would be open out there. So no, I wouldn’t close that door. My plan is to be at that convention.”

To be fair, Palin was directly asked the question about the open convention, but the former Alaska governor is savvy enough to know that her answer will give some people (unenthusiastic Republicans) hope and others (Romney and Santorum) heartburn. It further fuels the storyline that some Republicans prefer anyone else, but the four candidates competing to take on Obama in November.

See who got Palin’s nod for the GOP nomination

Palin said she plans to be in Tampa, and it is clear she is going to have a prominent role. Any guesses on the day and time of her speaking slot?

2. Obama’s diversion: On a day Republicans were expected to dominate the political news cycle, Obama held a press conference. Do you remember him? He is the Democrat that one of these Republicans will face in November.

Over the past year, Obama has held 100 fundraisers, and his campaign is using this fight for the GOP nomination to organize a general-election ground game. It is unclear how successful that organizing effort is going, but Obama certainly is not going to emerge from a divisive primary bruised, battered and broke. His GOP rival will.

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The power of the presidency was on full display on Super Tuesday. All Obama has to do is step to the podium, and he sucks the oxygen out of the air. Since it was Super Tuesday, there was plenty of it left for the GOP candidates. But heading into the general election, Obama has one tool that his eventual GOP opponent does not: the bully pulpit of the White House.

3. Santorum’s “lack of” organization: While Santorum might have grass-roots support, he is being greatly hurt by not having a full campaign organization in place.

Santorum’s Super Tuesday surprise

A few months ago, Santorum was running a bare-bones campaign and no one ever thought he would in the position he is now. But Santorum is here – a leading candidate for the GOP nomination – yet his campaign has made some very costly mistakes. He ceded Virginia – where he lives – and its 46 delegates because he failed to qualify for the ballot. He lost the chance at picking up another 18 delegates in Ohio, because he failed to file full delegate slates.

Follow Santorum’s campaign at the CNN Election Center

Santorum is fighting an uphill battle against a well-oiled Romney political machine and these mistakes are proving to be very costly.

4. Romney has an Appalachia problem: Romney, a Harvard-educated millionaire, had his first test among Appalachian voters this election cycle and he did not get a passing grade.

In the hilly counties along the Ohio River in eastern Tennessee and in north Georgia – culturally conservative locales where another Harvard grad named Barack Obama was viewed with deep skepticism in 2008 – Romney lost badly to Santorum, and in some spots, to Gingrich. Some of those counties are economically vibrant while many more are not.

Get the latest news on Romney’s campaign

The only stretch of Appalachian territory Romney won on Tuesday was in southwest Virginia where his only competition was Ron Paul, who beat Romney in a handful of counties in that area.

John Ryder, a Republican National Committee member from Tennessee, described Appalachian voters as “populist” or “Jacksonian.”

Is there a reason Romney can’t win big?

“You are talking about people for whom the substance of Romney’s message ought to have strong appeal in terms of dealing with jobs and the, but the rhetoric of this message is not working for him with this bloc of voters,” Ryder said. “It’s an issue he will have to address.”

5. Newt needs more than Georgia: After his humbling loss to Romney in Florida a month ago, Gingrich eagerly viewed Super Tuesday as the moment to revive his candidacy.

His campaign figured it would score wins in delegate-rich conservative states like Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, while also remaining competitive in Ohio. Instead, it won only Georgia – Gingrich’s home state.

Despite Gingrich’s triumphalist speech in Atlanta and his vow to soldier on, his rationale to remain in the Republican race just became slimmer.

Gingrich will pocket a large share of the delegates in Georgia by nearly doubling Romney’s vote total there, but his failure to beat Santorum in Oklahoma and Tennessee undercut his push to once again emerge as the singular conservative alternative to Romney.

Even more troubling for Gingrich: He also lost to Romney in both states.

Read and watch the latest updates on Gingrich’s campaign

The next big question for the former House Speaker is whether his friend and longtime benefactor, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, decides to keep funding the pro-Gingrich super PAC “Winning Our Future.”

Without serious money behind him as the race moves to a bundle of new states, it’s tough to see how Gingrich remains in the conversation.