WASHINGTON: Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has built a lead in the race for his party's nomination that is effectively, if slowly, closing off his rival's chances of overtaking him in the battle to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
The former Massachusetts governor's victories in six of 10 states that held votes earlier this week left former Sen. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, with few paths to deny Romney the nomination. One is an ugly and divisive fight at the Republican National Convention this August in Tampa, Florida.
Romney's Super Tuesday victories put him on a delegate-winning pace that would secure the nomination — the needed 1,144 delegates — in June, and at their current rate none of his Republican foes will reach even half the number needed. To date, Romney has won 55 percent of the delegates at stake in primaries and caucuses.
And now Romney is gently nudging his Republican opponents to drop out of the race. Romney's campaign circulated a memo making the case that his six victories on a single night had increased his delegate lead to a point that it was increasingly hard for any of his rivals to catch up. And they were hurting the party by continuing to try, it suggested.
An aide to Romney said it would take an act of God for any other candidate to win.
Santorum was defiant in his response.
"What won't they resort to, to try to bully their way through this race?" he said in Kansas. "If the governor now thinks he's now ordained by God to win, then let's just have it out."
Santorum can point to the all-important bellwether state of Ohio as cause for continuing his fight. Despite Romney's huge financial and organization advantages, he managed only the narrowest of victories over Santorum there, underscoring yet again his failure to entice the party's most-conservative voters to his candidacy.
Gingrich and Santorum both argue Romney is a latecomer to conservative causes, plagued by inconsistencies in his record and unable to articulate significant differences with Obama.
Romney's plodding pace of winning delegates leaves open some opportunities for debilitating gaffes and intrigue — and plenty of incentive for Santorum and Gingrich to stay in the race and try to make up ground.
In the aftermath of the Tuesday vote, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, in a conference call with reporters, said Romney was "limping across the finish line" in primary states. He added that the weakness of the Republican field was giving the president an "expanded map" of states to work with in his re-election campaign.
Romney is projecting confidence.
"We've got the time and the resources and a plan to get all the delegates, and we think that will get done before the convention," he said Wednesday on CNBC. Still, he also said he was "prepared to fight all the way" to the convention if needed.
The delegate math is not good for Santorum and Gingrich, despite Santorum's three victories on Tuesday.
Their only hope is to stop Romney from reaching the victory threshold, then wrestle the nomination from him at the convention — a scenario that many Republican insiders see as far-fetched.
In the overall race for delegates, Romney leads with 419. Santorum has 178 delegates and Gingrich, who won in the state of Georgia on Tuesday, has 107. He represented Georgia in Congress for nearly two decades.
Libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas, trails with 47, according to the tally by The Associated Press.
Neither Gingrich nor Santorum sound like they plan to leave the race — though a Santorum ally urged Gingrich to abandon the race.
Gingrich referred to himself as "the tortoise" and pledged to overtake the hares.
Santorum has tried to portray the race as a two-man contest, between Romney and him, hoping that he can solidify the anti-Romney vote behind him. That will remain a challenge as long as Gingrich, seen as a conservative visionary by his fans, remains in the race.
Next up: Saturday caucuses in Kansas, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Wyoming also wraps up its caucuses Saturday.