UPDATE at 11:42 p.m.:
It appears the night belongs either to Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum, pending the final outcome in Ohio. At this writing, with 91 percent of the precincts in that state reporting, Romney has finally pulled ahead of Santorum by half a percentage point. The late-reporting counties have been urban ones, and Romney is performing well in them. If he does indeed add Ohio to a list that includes Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia (and, based on very early returns, probably Idaho and Wyoming), while finishing second in Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee, this will have been a big night toward turning the off-and-on front-runner into a highly likely nominee.
Even if he loses Ohio, Santorum did well enough by winning primaries in Oklahoma and Tennessee and the North Dakota caucuses. Despite his victory in Georgia, Gingrich had the roughest night. He will get the lion’s share of the delegates in Georgia, the most delegate-rich state on Super Tuesday, but the rest of tonight’s results make it difficult to see how his success here translates elsewhere.
Looking ahead to next week: Santorum’s strength in Oklahoma and Tennessee may give him enough momentum with Southerners to upend Gingrich in next week’s contests in Alabama and Mississippi. If he does, Gingrich’s strategy of holding onto the party’s core Southern region will be undone. Gingrich needed stronger showings outside Georgia tonight to make the argument that he had a chance beyond his old home state. He didn’t get them.
UPDATE at 8:47 p.m.:
As of now, Newt Gingrich is above the 50 percent mark in congressional districts 3, 4, 8, 10 and 13. That’s important not only because it means Gingrich would get all three delegates in them instead of the two he would get for a mere plurality, but also because those are districts Mike Huckabee, favorite of social conservatives, won four years ago. Combine that with the 50 percent of the evangelical vote Gingrich won, and it’s clear this is one state where his two divorces didn’t hurt his vote totals.
In Tennessee, meanwhile, Rick Santorum appears to be the likely winner if exit polls are to be believed, with Romney in second and Gingrich in third.
From CBS News’ report on the Super Tuesday exit poll, an early signal that this could be a good night for Newt Gingrich:
At least seven out of 10 voters in all seven primary states today said gas prices were an “important” factor in their decision, the early exit polling shows. The issue matters most to voters in Georgia, where 81 percent said it was important. The issue was significant in other Southern states as well: 79 percent of Oklahoma primary voters called it important, as did 77 percent of Tennessee voters.
“Most important” for many voters was the economy — 58 percent of Georgian voters surveyed said that was the case for them — and electability was also high on the list. But Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee are, by far, the most important states for Gingrich tonight, and those large groups citing gas prices as an important factor in their decision bode well for a candidate who says he’d lower gasoline prices to $2.50 a gallon by unleashing domestic supplies and approving the Keystone XL pipeline, among other measures.
Check back throughout the night for further updates.
– By Kyle Wingfield