By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Mitt Romney survived another near-death campaign experience, but a narrow win in Ohio and five other "Super Tuesday" victories did little to ease doubts about the shaky front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney's close triumph over Rick Santorum in Tuesday's marquee match-up in Ohio was just good enough: It moved him one step closer to the Republican nomination and averted a dramatic reshuffling in the race to decide who will take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
But the narrow margin of victory in Ohio and decisive losses in the South showed that Romney is falling short in his efforts to appeal to conservatives, evangelical Christians and blue-collar voters in a Republican race that now seems certain to last into late April or beyond.
And for Romney, the next few weeks aren't likely to bring much good news. The next contest in the state-by-state nomination race is a caucus on Saturday in conservative Kansas, where Santorum -- a social conservative who emphasizes his Catholic faith -- is expected to do well.
Next Tuesday the campaign moves to the conservative South, where Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, has not performed well. Mississippi and Alabama will hold primaries that day.
Tuesday's results gave Romney's rivals a reason to continue in the race: Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, won Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota, while Newt Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker, won Georgia.
However, Romney is continuing to pile up a lead in state delegates whose support is needed to win the nomination. In a sense, he has become like a boxer who can't score a knockout, but who is gradually winning his fight on points.
"The good news for Romney is that he is still the front-runner," said Republican Dan Schnur, an aide to John McCain's unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 2000. "The bad news is that the doubts about his candidacy are only going to grow stronger."
Aside from Ohio, Romney also won in Massachusetts, where he was governor, and Vermont, Virginia, Alaska and Idaho, solidifying his lead in the race for the 1,144 party delegates needed to win the nomination.
But exit polls in Ohio showed that Romney, a former private equity executive, made no gains with blue-collar and conservative voters despite a renewed focus on resurrecting the economy and creating jobs.
Just 22 percent of Ohio voters thought Romney was the candidate who best understood their problems, compared with 31 percent who said Santorum did.
Romney, who in recent weeks has referred to his wife Ann's two Cadillacs and to his friendship with NASCAR team owners, is losing ground on the issue. When he won the Florida primary a month ago, 34 percent of voters in that state thought Romney best understood their problems, according to CNN exit polls.
Romney also lost to Santorum among voters who made less than $100,000 a year and among voters who described themselves as very conservative. He performed slightly better among conservatives when he won Florida a month ago and Michigan last week.
"Romney didn't end any of the doubts about his candidacy or answer any of the questions," Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said. "Every concern about Romney that existed before tonight continues. And because of that, the race continues."
WINNING WHEN HE NEEDS TO
In Ohio, Romney did prove once again that he can win with his back to the wall.
When he has faced a critical or must-win showdown during the campaign -- in Florida, Michigan and Ohio -- Romney has managed to flex his financial and organizational muscle and pull out wins to regain command of the race.
In Ohio, Romney and the independent "Super PAC" that supports him outspent Santorum by 4 to 1, pummeling the former Pennsylvania senator with television ads that blasted Santorum as a Washington insider. The ads helped to erase what had been a double-digit lead for Santorum in Ohio polls.
Santorum's campaign took solace in making the race in Ohio close despite being outspent significantly. But analysts said that Romney, for all of his struggles in trying to appeal to the party's conservative electorate, has done what he needs to do.
"You win campaigns by what? Raising money and being organized," Republican pollster Steve Mitchell said. "He's winning tough battles in states that are going to be important in the general election."
The last time Romney seemed ready to take control of the race, after his January 31 win in Florida and February 4 win in Nevada, Santorum's victories in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota days later derailed Romney's momentum and threw the race into disarray.
Romney hopes to avoid a similar reversal on March 20, when he faces another Midwestern showdown with Santorum in Illinois, where Romney's ability to attract blue-collar votes will be tested again.
"For Romney, a win is a win," Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown said. "Finishing a close second in Ohio is nice for Santorum, but second is second. What's his argument to donors? 'I can finish a close second?' "
Gingrich's win in Georgia ensured he will press on with his campaign, which means he will continue to split with Santorum the votes of conservatives who are seeking an alternative to Romney.
But the victory in Georgia, a state Gingrich represented in Congress, did little to prove he is capable of expanding his appeal beyond the South. And even in the South, Gingrich showed weakness on Tuesday: In Tennessee and Oklahoma, he ran third behind Santorum and Romney.
Santorum's close race in Ohio, and his wins in Tennessee and Oklahoma, showed his heavy focus on social and religious issues did not appear to hurt him in the Republican races, for which social conservatives typically turn out in big numbers.
In Ohio, nearly half of the primary voters identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, and Santorum comfortably won their votes.
Romney closed his campaigns in Michigan and Ohio by focusing heavily on his prescriptions for the ailing economy, and warning that detours into debates over contraception and abortion would hurt the Republican Party's ability to attract independent voters.
CNN's exit polls in Ohio showed a majority of primary voters, 54 percent, viewed the economy as the most important issue. Romney won their votes by 42 percent to 33 percent over Santorum.
A majority of 51 percent also viewed Romney as the most likely to defeat Obama in November, with 24 percent believing Santorum had the best chance to capture the White House.
That was good enough to give Romney a narrow win in Ohio, but not to put Santorum away and begin to wrap up the race.
"Romney clearly has the inside track on the nomination," Mackowiak said. "But he's not closing the deal, and he's not creating any enthusiasm."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Christopher Wilson)