Super Tuesday pivotal for GOP hopefuls

Ohio race is key among 10 states being contested
March 4, 2012 12:23 am

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WILLOUGHBY, Ohio -- After some mild trash talk about the Cleveland Browns -- "I know, I'm trying to get votes here, not lose them, but I was a Steeler fan before I ran for president, so I just can't help it" -- Rick Santorum returned to flattering his audience.

Nearing the end of a 48-minute stemwinder to the Lake County Republican Party in this mostly affluent Cleveland suburb Friday night, he gave a crowd of nearly a thousand an admonition for Tuesday.

"You are here in Ohio, where you [are], as you seem to always be, the center of the political universe in America," the former Pennsylvania senator said. "When Ohio whispers, people listen. When Ohio shouts, 'We want the conservative,' this country will stand up and join you."

Mr. Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul will be locked in a competition that spans the continent Tuesday, with 10 contests from Georgia to Alaska, but Mr. Santorum wasn't just playing to the crowd. Ohio has emerged as the most pivotal and sharply contested event on Super Tuesday. It gives Mr. Santorum the opportunity to solidify his status as a leading contender for the GOP nomination while offering Mr. Romney the chance to recapture front-running momentum after his victories last week in Michigan and Arizona.

Mr. Santorum held substantial polling leads here before his narrow loss in Michigan. Since then, Mr. Romney's numbers, pushed by his aggressive spending, have been creeping up to within the margin of error in the two most recent surveys.

"It's a race between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, and my guess is probably about an even race right now," said Robert T. Bennett, former longtime chairman of the state's Republican Party. "The Romney commercials obviously have been prevalent on TV here. He and his [super-PAC] have a substantial television presence."

According to Mr. Bennett's analysis of the state's GOP geography, Mr. Santorum was campaigning Friday on ground more likely to be friendly to his chief rival. Mr. Bennett, who is still a member of the state's central committee and says he is neutral in the race, sees the Cleveland suburbs as more moderate and more receptive to Mr. Romney. The congressman for the district is Rep. Steve LaTourette, who has a reputation as perhaps the most moderate member of the state's GOP delegation.

Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com.
First Published 2012-03-03 23:19:14

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