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.

Pointing to the other side of the state, home to greater concentrations of social conservatives, Mr. Bennett said, "Santorum is going to do well in southwest Ohio and the I-75 corridor" running north from Cincinnati to Michigan.

"You could argue that the Cleveland area is more blue-collar and more Catholic, so in theory you might think Santorum would do better there," said Terry Casey, a Republican political consultant in the state. "It seems counter-intuitive, but the more Catholic blue-collar vote is also more moderate."

Both Republican veterans see the real battleground as the Columbus media market in the center of the state, where Mr. Romney campaigned the day after his twin victories last week.

In a pattern repeated across the primary states, much of the party's establishment has lined up behind Mr. Romney. Mr. Santorum's most high-profile backer is Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator who last month switched his allegiance from the former Massachusetts governor.

"The so-called Romney machine is nothing but money, trashing and bashing," Mr. DeWine insisted on Friday, as Mr. Romney courted votes at a rally in Cleveland.

But compared to the shoe-string Santorum effort, the Romney camp also holds an edge in logistics and organization. The Santorum campaign has failed to field any delegates in three of the state's 16 congressional districts and fielded incomplete slates in several others, meaning that he starts out handicapped in the number of delegates he can win in the state.

While it had yet to make an announcement, the Santorum campaign was considering Steubenville for its election night rally. But there's some irony in that possibility in that it is in one of the districts with an empty Santorum slate.

Mr. Gingrich joined Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney at a Saturday taping of a forum with Fox News personality Mike Huckabee. While Mr. Gingrich has concentrated his Super Tuesday campaigning in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress, he has not conceded Ohio as he did Michigan last week. That's a hurdle for Mr. Santorum, who competes with the former speaker for more conservative voters and who has battled him since Iowa for the claim to be the chief alternative to Mr. Romney.

Ohio, like Michigan, has an open primary, a structure that was a source of controversy in Michigan, where the Santorum campaign used robo-calls to encourage cross-party votes. While Mr. Santorum may hope for such aid in Ohio as well, one prominent Democrat said he didn't see that as much of a likely factor.

"I don't think so, even though there's no presidential primary on our side," said Jim Ruvalo, a former Democratic Party chairman. "I don't sense a feeling among Democrats here that they want to create mischief."

Mr. Paul has not been much of a factor in the Ohio race, concentrating instead on caucus states, including Washington, which set the stage for Super Tuesday with its Saturday contest. Mr. Romney claimed a double-digit victory Saturday night over Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul, who were locked in a close fight for second. Mr. Gingrich was fourth.

Mr. Romney also hoped to pick up delegates Tuesday in caucuses in Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota. In addition to Ohio and Georgia, Republicans have a chance to vote in primaries in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

While a loss in Ohio would be a bruising setback, Mr. Romney appears likely to emerge from the day with the largest nationwide harvest of delegates. In addition to the fact that no one else is seriously contesting his home state of Massachusetts, he and Mr. Paul were the only remaining contenders who managed to qualify for the ballot in Virginia. And, as the Romney campaign gleefully pointed out Saturday, Mr. Santorum also failed to field full delegate slates in Tennessee.

For all the attention to Ohio, with the largest population and most hotly contested race among the Super Tuesday states, heavily Republican Georgia offers more delegates. Mr. Gingrich, whose candidacy has faded since his landslide victory in neighboring South Carolina, conceded that his chances of continuing in the GOP race are slim if he fails to hold serve on his home court.

Mr. Santorum held polling leads in Tennessee and Oklahoma. His campaign, like Mr. Paul's, was certain to continue no matter what the results Tuesday. Mr. Santorum boasted to his Ohio audience that his fundraising has increased geometrically since his three wins last month and his strong showing in Michigan.

Whatever the results Tuesday, no one will be in a position to declare victory overall.

"I think this thing has gone on and on and on," former Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, a Romney supporter, said last week, "and I think, right now, a lot of Republicans would like to see it end."

But another high-profile Romney backer, Saul Anuzis, the Republican national committeeman from Michigan, said he was resigned, and confident, about a protracted battle.

"They're all big deals," he said when asked about the stakes in Ohio. "You've got to run a national campaign and slog through state by state. ... It's a completely different campaign than 2008. This was designed to be a drawn-out process."

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

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