Ohio looms large as Super Tuesday arrives with Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum in dead heat

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum raced across Ohio in a frantic quest for the same Republican voters on the eve of today's Super Tuesday showdown, but offered a distinctly different focus.

"There are other folks in this campaign talking about a lot of other things," Romney said at a town hall meeting in Youngstown, a former steel town in the northeast corner of the state. "But for me, it's more jobs, less debt, smaller government."

Across the state in Miamisburg, near Dayton, Santorum was making a broader appeal to social conservatives. The former Pennsylvania senator even embraced his Washington experience.

"This country," he said, "is more than just the economy."

Today will answer which approach breaks the dead heat between the two combatants here and settle a nagging question: whether the GOP primary is nearing a conclusion or whether it will drag on, a possibility that frightens party leaders. Super Tuesday spans 10 states, but none more watched than Ohio.

Romney is hoping a victory will convince Republicans he should be awarded the nomination and get on with the business of defeating President Barack Obama.

"This is a failed presidency," Romney said. "He's a nice guy, but he's in over his head. We need to have a president who understands the economy if we're going to fix the economy."

The former Massachusetts governor has pulled even or just ahead of Santorum in Ohio after being down by 10 points a week ago, a sign that reluctant Republicans are buying into his electability argument.

"Romney's going to seal the deal here," said Kathy Dercoli, 58, who attended the town hall meeting in Youngstown. "He's going to have the fire in the belly, that's what he needs, and he's going to get it in Ohio. He's the only one who can beat Obama."

Only Santorum and Romney are competing in Ohio. Newt Gingrich is focused on his home state of Georgia, where he has a big lead, while Ron Paul is looking to pick up delegates in several states. All told, 419 delegates are in play today.

Ohio yields 63 delegates, though some are awarded proportionally.

Santorum has risen against the lagging enthusiasm for Romney among ardent conservatives but has slipped lately, wading into contentious debates about contraception and other issues. He tried to play up the underdog role Monday, saying that he had been outspent "12-to-1" by Romney.

"Money is not going to buy this election," he said in Miamisburg. "The best ideas and believing in the people is going to win the election."

He stressed his experience on national security issues as a former lawmaker and his religion. Santorum made his final pitch at an evening rally in Cuyahoga Falls, where a large crowd assembled outside in the cold before doors were opened.

"I agree with Santorum, it's not all about the economy," said Frank Larson, the mayor of nearby Munroe Falls. "Foreign policy is a big concern."

He said he ruled out Romney as a candidate — "He's a flip-flopper" — but was not yet settled on Santorum. "I'm going to have to get my dart board out. Everyone is looking for a candidate to ride in on a white horse, but that's not going to happen."

Romney's organization muscle could also be a deciding factor. He has a large team assembled in Ohio (including some political talent imported from Florida, operatives Brett Doster and Albert Martinez) and has used his resources to focus on getting people to the polls. Dercoli said she had gotten 10 automated phone calls from the Romney campaign compared with one from Santorum's.

The economy here has shown improvement, but remains a central concern among voters. Romney was greeted by a friendly crowd of several hundred in Youngstown, where his wife, Ann, made a populist appeal, saying her grandfather worked in the coal mines in Wales before coming to America.

Mary Toepfer, a 40-year-old adjunct college professor and Romney supporter, vented that Santorum was doing a better job connecting with everyday voters: "He's acting like an average guy, 'Look at me, I don't even have money for ads.' "

She stood up in Youngstown and urged Romney to emphasize all sides of his biography, including his work as a Mormon missionary. She also urged him to better spell out differences between the health care plan enacted while he was governor of Massachusetts and Obama's plan. Romney said his approach only applied to a small percentage of the uninsured, among other things, satisfying Toepfer.

"He needs to do more of that," she told reporters after the event. "He needs to anticipate what the average voter is thinking."

Santorum riffed hard on the health care issue in Cuyahoga Falls, using it as a broad attack on Romney's principles and suggesting he was dishonest and "the weakest candidate we can possibly put forward."

"If the policy's bad," Santorum said, "the policy's bad."

The audience carried a religious overtone and a passion not seen at Romney's event earlier. Santorum urged the crowd to take today to get out the vote and contribute money to the campaign so he can continue the race. No matter what happens, he says he'll press on, as does Gingrich.

"You here in Ohio know the challenge," Santorum said, casting it as a duty to "keep freedom alive."

But a Romney win in Ohio would be a clear sign of command and he can point to the crowd in Youngstown as evidence of his broader appeal. A woman who described herself as a Democrat got up to say she supported him on the strength of his economic message and there were a scattering of other Democrats in the audience.

"Obama is too soft, too wishy-washy," said one of them, Mollie Dennison, 51. "He has a good moral compass, but I don't like all this debt building up. We desperately need jobs. That's what I'm looking to see."

Information from the New York Times was used in this report.

Super Tuesday today

(Delegates at stake in parentheses): Alaska caucuses (24), Georgia (76), Idaho caucuses (32), Massachusetts (38), North Dakota caucuses (28), Ohio (63), Oklahoma (40), Tennessee (55), Vermont (17); Virginia (46).

By the numbers

1,144 Delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination

Delegate count (those awarded by state elections)

Mitt Romney: 180

Rick Santorum: 90

Newt Gingrich: 29

Ron Paul: 23

Saturday

Guam caucuses (9); Kansas caucuses (40); Northern Mariana Islands caucuses (9) Virgin Islands caucuses (9)

174 days until the Republican National Convention, Aug. 27-30 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Your campaign source

For news and information on the campaign and plans for the convention, visit tampabay.com/rnc-2012.

Ohio looms large as Super Tuesday arrives with Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum in dead heat 03/05/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 5, 2012 11:21pm]

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