By Thomas Fitzgerald, The Philadelphia Inquirer –
CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — The ads fall like hammer blows on television and radio: Rick Santorum is a “Washington insider” who bragged about all the earmark money he wangled in the Senate and voted against his principles to support a federal education bill because sometimes “you take one for the team.”
Mitt Romney and his allies are spending millions to try to come from behind and capture the big Super Tuesday prize of Ohio, battling against Santorum’s hot-blooded appeal to conservatives. Last week, the insurgent Santorum held a double-digit lead over Romney in the Buckeye State, but that has dwindled to nothing after the fierce campaigning since Tuesday’s Michigan primary.
Ohio, a sprawling and diverse state that is both industrial and rural, offers the hardest-fought of the contests set for Tuesday, when 10 states weigh in on the Republican presidential nomination. Both Romney and Santorum loaded up their schedules with events in the state and are making a stand.
For Romney, who won a popular-vote victory in his native Michigan, the latest Midwestern battleground offers a chance to prove he is the strongest potential GOP nominee, able to attract skeptical activists in the party’s conservative base and the kinds of working-class voters who will be key to victory in the fall against President Obama.
Santorum, analysts said, needs a win in Ohio, one week after he saw a 15-point lead slip away in Michigan, to show that his candidacy can remain viable.
“I’m a victim of the radio and the television,” said Neil Smith, one of about 300 people who waited Friday to hear Santorum in the gym at Chillicothe High School, here in the conservative south-central section of Ohio. “There’s so much negativity out there, it’s hard to decide.”
He heard a fired-up Santorum argue that he is the conservative who would provide the clearest contrast with Obama, reminding the crowd that Romney pushed through a health law in Massachusetts similar to Obama’s national program. Santorum said the aim of the health-care overhaul was to suppress individual freedom and create more government dependency.
“This election, we need a choice,” Santorum said. “We don’t need a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We need a clear choice. … If we’re going to win this election, and just as importantly, if we are going to govern with the mandate from the people to do the scale of change that is necessary, to return the power to you and balance our budget, to put Washington under control again, we will need a candidate that will make that contrast clear on the important issues of the day.”
Smith, 71, a retired Sears worker, said he was probably going to vote for Santorum, though he was still considering Romney. “He doesn’t seem to play to whatever the crowd is,” Smith said of the former Pennsylvania senator. “He will say what he thinks, not just tell you what you want to hear.”
On the other hand, Smith thought the campaign fell into a thicket of social issues in the last week.
“There’s been an awful lot of time talking about contraception, which in my opinion is not important compared to the problems we’ve got,” Smith said.
A Quinnipiac University Poll released Friday found the race in Ohio too close to call. Santorum had the support of 35 percent of likely Republican voters surveyed to Romney’s 31 percent — within the poll’s margin of error. The day before Michigan’s vote, Santorum led the same poll, 36 to 29 percent.
Barry Bennett, a GOP consultant in Washington with deep Ohio roots, said the race here is a classic struggle between the party “establishment” and Santorum, “who has the grassroots with him.”
Tea party groups and religious conservative organizations in southwest Ohio, the Appalachian counties across the state’s south, and rural areas around the Interstate 75 corridor along Ohio’s western edge are “running phone banks without the Santorum campaign telling them what to do,” Bennett said.
“The Romney campaign is well-organized at the upper echelons, but there is nothing underneath,” he said.
Curt Steiner, a Columbus-based Republican political consultant, said the Romney campaign is well-organized and has a better shot at targeting voters who regularly participate in GOP primaries and getting them out to vote.
“Ohio is absolutely crucial for Santorum,” said Steiner, who is supporting Romney. “If he blows a lead again, that says something about his campaign and his viability. He’s still hurting from getting off message in Michigan.”
Leading up to Michigan, Santorum was caught up in discussions on birth control, criticized John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech advocating strict separation of church and state (with Santorum saying it made him want to “throw up”), and called Obama a snob for pushing college education.
“Santorum boxed himself in by saying things that are extreme even for many social conservatives,” said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University. “Working-class Republicans in Ohio are not going to like the things he was saying about higher education, because most of them value that as a pathway to a better future for their kids.”
The Romney campaign believes that if it wins Ohio, it can begin to slam the door on Santorum. Romney has twice as many delegates going into Super Tuesday, and is poised to have a pretty good night: in Virginia, where he is virtually guaranteed a win because Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did not qualify for the ballot; in Massachusetts, where Romney was governor, and neighboring Vermont; and in Idaho, which has a sizable population of fellow Mormons.
“The delegate spread between Romney and the others is going to start growing faster,” one Romney adviser said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Santorum leads in Tennessee and Gingrich is ahead in Georgia, which he represented in Congress and where he has concentrated his campaign.
In Ohio, Santorum starts at least nine delegates behind no matter how well he does in the popular vote because he failed to field delegate slates in three of the state’s 16 congressional districts — including the conservative Sixth District bordering Santorum’s native Western Pennsylvania.
Of Ohio’s 66 GOP delegates, the state party awards three to the winner in each congressional district, and 15 will be distributed to candidates in proportion to the statewide results. A candidate needs at least 20 percent of the vote to qualify for a share of those 15. In addition, three party officials are designated as superdelegates and are not required to commit to any candidate.
Santorum’s delegate problems could go deeper. He failed to file proper slates in six other Ohio congressional districts. Under party rules, he would be eligible for only some, but not all, of those districts’ delegates if he were to carry them.
Ben Ginsberg, the campaign counsel for Romney, said Santorum had also failed to get on the ballot in the District of Columbia and had not filed full delegate slates for Tennessee. “The basic organizational test that you’re going to have to battle President Obama is a test that Rick Santorum and his campaign have flunked,” Ginsberg told reporters on a conference call.
And yet, if it conforms to the recent past, Ohio’s GOP electorate Tuesday should be a natural fit for Santorum. In 2008, Republicans who cast primary ballots in the state were less affluent, less educated, and more likely to live in rural areas and to be evangelical Christians than GOP voters in Michigan. Last week, Santorum beat Romney in all those demographic groups.