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Mixed results prolong Republican race

But equally, Santorum failed to fully break out of his comfort zone of social conservatives and religious voters, with his hopes of hinting at general election viability in a complex battleground dashed in a narrow Ohio loss.

Santorum also had his hopes of emerging as a genuine challenger to Obama scotched.

Voters who said their priority was finding a candidate able to beat Obama in November went for Romney 53 percent to 27 percent in Ohio, according to CNN exit polls.

But there were worrying signs deep in the numbers for Romney in Ohio, the ultimate bellwether of U.S. presidential elections.

He captured the most votes among the wealthy, exit polls showed, but lost to Santorum among middle class voters earning between US$50,000 and US$100,000 and those earning less than US$50,000.

That could translate into a problem in the general election, with Obama running a populist campaign designed to tar Romney as the poster boy for an economy unfairly tilted toward the very rich.

Super Tuesday became a microcosm of the whole Republican race: Romney was the strongest candidate, yet a flawed standard bearer, unable to put a lid on a contest lacking a candidate able to unite the party.

That fact will worry Republicans who fear the protracted race, dominated for weeks by social issues likely to turn off moderate voters, could harm their eventual nominee's chances against Obama.

And Democrats relished the prolonged bloodletting, as Obama piles up campaign cash and sees his approval ratings hover near 50 percent.

Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz savored a “muddled mess” and crowed: “Romney is barely limping ahead of a weak and flawed field.”

Santorum meanwhile must now fight the impression that he is a spoiler, someone who could hurt his party's eventual nominee but not win himself.

Gingrich can argue that he is the candidate of the conservative South, after adding his home state of Georgia to his South Carolina triumph in January.

But the former House speaker does not appear to have any viable route to the nomination.

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