* Romney could take big step toward Republican nomination
* Republican presidential contests held in 10 states
* Rival Santorum tries to hold off Romney
(Adds Romney, detail)
By Eric Johnson
COLUMBUS, Ohio, March 6 (Reuters) - Mitt Romney fought
to establish an unassailable lead over chief rival Rick Santorum
in the race for the Republican U.S. presidential nomination,
with Ohio the biggest prize among 10 states holding contests on
Romney, the winner of the past five state contests, carried
momentum into "Super Tuesday," the biggest day so far in the
roller coaster Republican campaign. Some 419 of the 1,144
delegates needed to win the party's nomination are at stake.
Polls show Romney has effectively erased the more
conservative Santorum's lead in Ohio, a traditional bellwether
state that could play an important role in deciding the
Republican nominee to challenge Democratic President Barack
Obama on Nov. 6.
Ohio is the most closely watched of the 10 Super Tuesday
races, with contests also being held in Georgia, Massachusetts,
Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Idaho, Alaska and North
Dakota. The earliest polls close at 7 p.m. EST (0000 GMT).
A victory in Ohio and a good showing elsewhere would make
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, the favorite to win the
nomination. Even without an Ohio win, his strength in other
states all but ensures that he will extend his lead in the
"This is a process of gathering enough delegates to become
the nominee, and I think we're on track to have that happen,"
Romney said after voting in his home town of Belmont,
A less impressive showing could prompt renewed doubts about
his ability to secure the nomination as Republicans continue the
state-by-state battle to pick a nominee at their August
Romney, who built a fortune of at least $200 million as a
private-equity executive, has struggled to connect with
conservatives and blue-collar voters in a campaign that has
focused on his business career.
"He doesn't really know what he stands for," said Santorum
supporter Katherine Frenz, 36, of Hilliard, Ohio.
Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has won
the support of religious conservatives thanks to his opposition
to gay marriage and his views on other hot-button social issues.
He has fought charges that his Senate career makes him a
"Washington insider" and culture warrior who would alienate
Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich is
counting on a win in his home state of Georgia to claw his way
back into contention. Ron Paul, a U.S. congressman from Texas
known for his libertarian views, hopes to score his first win in
Romney is favored in Virginia, Vermont and Massachusetts.
Santorum is favored in Oklahoma, and he hoped to edge out Romney
and Gingrich in Tennessee.
OBAMA WEIGHS IN
Obama stole some of the Super Tuesday spotlight with a rare
White House news conference at which he talked about help for
struggling homeowners and rising gasoline prices. He dismissed
the Republican candidates' threats to take military action to
stop Iran's nuclear program as "big talk."
"If some of these folks think that it's time to launch a
war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American
people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences
would be. Everything else is just talk," he said.
As Romney flew home to Massachusetts, Santorum hunkered down
in Steubenville, Ohio, home to Franciscan University, a school
that shares Santorum's strict approach to Catholicism. Gingrich
traveled to Alabama, which holds its primary contest on March
13, before heading back home to Georgia to push what opinion
polls show is a flagging campaign.
"The only hope we have to beat Obama is to have better ideas
communicated clearly and cutting through his billion-dollar
campaign," Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress for 20
years, told a business group in the Atlanta area.
Santorum has been vastly outspent in Ohio by a Romney
campaign machine that has pelted him with negative ads.
"I am voting for Romney because he is the lesser of all the
evils - really I'm voting against Santorum and Gingrich," said
Michelle McMahon, a Hilliard, Ohio, student.
In recent presidential campaigns, the Super Tuesday wave of
primaries and caucuses has often settled the Republican race.
But while this year's contests could establish a clear pecking
order, the race is likely to stretch until April or May under
new rules designed to attract more voters and boost enthusiasm.
But recent polls indicate the lengthy primary season may
actually be alienating voters. An ABC News/Washington Post poll
released on Tuesday showed that more voters view the candidates
negatively than positively. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll
on Monday found that 40 percent of voters view the Republican
Party less favorably than they did before voting started in
(For more on the Republican campaign, click on
(Additional reporting by Sam Youngman in Massachusetts, Steve
Holland in Ohio and Colleen Jenkins in Atlanta; writing by Andy
Sullivan; Editing by Doina Chiacu)
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