ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The delegate count goes from a trickle to a gusher this evening, and the results of today's primaries and caucuses will give us a much stronger idea of where this GOP presidential contest is headed. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. And Mara, what's at stake for the four remaining Republican candidates?
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, they're 419 delegates at stake. Georgia might have the most, but Ohio is certainly the biggest prize and the biggest test for Mitt Romney. We'll see, tonight, how well he does with white, working class voters. Ohio is a must-win state for Republicans in the fall, and he's had trouble winning over white working class voters. Santorum's done very well with that constituency.
But, Romney has superior organization and resources, and he's been outspending Santorum on the air in Ohio by six to one and the polls are now tied.
SIEGEL: Well, if Ohio is, as you say, a must-win state for Mitt Romney, is it also a must-win state for Rick Santorum? And does Newt Gingrich have a must-win state, let's say, in Georgia today?
LIASSON: Well, I think it is a must-win state for Santorum. If he's gonna slow Romney down, since he missed the opportunity to win Michigan, he does have to win Ohio. I think he'll also do well in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Gingrich has said, himself, that he has to win his home state of Georgia. But I think Romney, as the frontrunner, actually doesn't have to win Ohio. He has to do as well as he can there.
He probably will win Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia, where he's the only candidate other than Ron Paul on the ballot. He'll also probably win Idaho. But winning Ohio, for Romney, would be a pretty good way for him to return to a project that he had started, but then had to drop a while back - which is convincing Republicans that he is the inevitable nominee.
And even if they can't fall in love with him, they should fall in line behind him as soon as possible.
SIEGEL: Well, let's say he does well enough to be able to make that case. I assume there would then be pressure on the other candidates to drop out of the race.
LIASSON: There will be pressure, but as long as there are superPACs and proportional primaries, there's not much effective pressure. You have seen, in recent days, Eric Cantor, Tom Coburn, other members of the Republican establishment coalescing around Romney, endorsing him. They want this process to end soon so that Romney can turn his attention to Barack Obama and the fall.
It's very hard to see, after tonight, how anyone else could become the nominee, but because of the process that the Republican Party designed for this year, all the candidates will still have a pretty long hard slog to go before anyone gets 1144 delegates.
SIEGEL: Let's look ahead then to the general election campaign in the fall. How does that look right about now?
LIASSON: Well, the general election looks OK for the president, at least for the moment. You know, he was asked today at the press conference what message he had for Mitt Romney on Super Tuesday and he said, good luck tonight - and then kind of chuckled. He's been very disciplined. He doesn't want to get into it with Romney just yet. He won't mention him by name, although he has plenty of indirect mentions of those folks on the campaign trail.
But the head-to-head polls do show that the president is beating all of the Republican candidates by a couple of points. Not super comfortable for an incumbent, but not bad. Polls show also that Republicans have paid a very high price for this long nasty primary. Every single one of them are viewed negatively by more and more people as the primary has gone along.
So the president has benefited by having his opponents engaged in a circular firing squad. Right now, he's enjoying a bit of a honeymoon, but all that might change as soon as Romney and his superPAC feel that they have the nomination at least in sight and can turn more of their resources toward the general election and to the president. And I think that will happen pretty soon.
SIEGEL: Well, we'll see later tonight if that has happened on Super Tuesday. Thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.