Mitt Romney put a brave face on his unconvincing performance in the Super Tuesday primaries, with his campaign team proclaiming that his lead in the Republican nomination contest was nearly insurmountable.
But the results showed that the former governor of Massachusetts is still struggling to unite the party around his candidacy to unseat President Barack Obama in November.
By narrowly avoiding defeat to Rick Santorum in the battleground state of Ohio, Mr Romney may have once again silenced talk of Republicans seeking a “white knight” candidate from outside the current field to become the nominee. He may also have avoided the need to shake up his campaign staff.
But the tightness of the contest combined with defeats in three other states means Mr Santorum, and perhaps even Newt Gingrich, will continue to threaten him for weeks to come.
Mr Romney struck an upbeat tone on Wednesday. “I think my plan is working and that we have the time and resolve to get the delegates,” he said. “There will be no brokered convention where some new person comes in to become the nominee.”
While Mr Romney’s wins were hardly resounding, they will probably feel like thumping victories compared to the results he can expect over the next 10 days.
The next states to vote for the Republican presidential nominee include Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama – states in which Mr Santorum and Mr Gingrich are likely to be battling it out for the conservative vote, while Mr Romney struggles.
Kansas will hold non-binding caucuses on March 10, followed by Mississippi and Alabama primaries on March 13, which will allocate 40 and 50 convention delegates respectively.
Mr Romney might fare better in Hawaii on March 13, but it is holding caucuses and only 20 delegates are at stake. Missouri will allocate its 52 delegates on March 17 – but Mr Santorum won last month’s “beauty contest” there.
Money is the other challenge for Mr Romney. In order to grind out a victory in Ohio, his campaign and his supporters flooded the airwaves with attack advertisements, outspending Mr Santorum by a four-to-one margin for just a few thousand extra votes.
Although Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi are inexpensive media markets, he will probably have to pump more funds into those races than he wants to, diverting money that could have been preserved for the battle against Mr Obama.
And by burning through more cash, Mr Romney runs the risk of irking his donors who may be tiring of his inability to wrap up the primary race.
Finally, Mr Romney will have to deal with particular challenges exposed by the Super Tuesday results even if he continues to benefit from a big lead in the delegate count.
Exit polls in Ohio showed Mr Romney doing well among voters aged 50 or above but failing to secure the backing of younger Republicans.
He also faced difficulty gaining the approval of working-class voters. While he tied Mr Santorum for the vote of Ohio Republicans earning less than $30,000 per year, Mr Romney lost to the former Pennsylvania senator in the key middle- income categories of $30,000 to $100,000, only prevailing among wealthier residents. And while he won the majority of votes among college-educated Ohio Republicans, he did less well among those who did not attend university.
Meanwhile, Mr Romney lost to Mr Santorum among “very conservative” Republicans who strongly support the Tea Party – the heart of the party’s base.
If there was a silver lining, it was that Ohio voters pointed to Mr Romney as the best candidate to defeat Mr Obama, even if Mr Santorum scored better on his conservative values and moral character.
“This was a state where Mr Romney had never run before and we were down 11 points with six days to go, so we feel pretty good about that,” said a senior Romney campaign official.
But Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, was clearly satisfied with how things were unfolding. “[Mr Romney is] limping across the finish line,” he said.
Get alerts on US politics & policy when a new story is published