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Romney and Santorum fight for Super Tuesday's crown jewel

Gerald Herbert / AP

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at American Posts in Toledo, Ohio, Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

 

TOLEDO, Ohio – Ten states hold their nominating contests in the Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, none more important than the contested race in Ohio, a state key in any general election candidate’s path to the White House.

The state’s Republican primary is poised to become the crown jewel of Super Tuesday, a state in which Mitt Romney could avoid the kind of backslide he suffered after previous wins in the primary cycle or where another candidate could find a new boost of energy and momentum.

For Rick Santorum, the former senator from neighboring Pennsylvania, Ohio presents an opportunity to challenge Romney on similar terrain as Michigan – where he almost upset Romney on Tuesday evening – but without the built-in advantages for the former Massachusetts governor.

Santorum must begin to string together some big wins in major states, said Randall Fought, a Perrysburg bricklayer, of Santorum at his campaign event on Tuesday in northwest Ohio. “He’s got to pick up some decisive places, especially here in the Midwest.”

But Romney is riding high after staving off Santorum in Michigan, while also scoring a decisive win in Arizona.

“If Santorum would have won Michigan, I would’ve been tilted in that direction … He was weak in the debate, and I think that affected him in the result,” said Michael Kuhar of Point Place, Ohio following a Romney event in Toledo. 

With only a few days until Super Tuesday, delegates are at stake for the GOP presidential candidates. NBC's David Gregory explains how candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are campaigning in those Super Tuesday states.

“I think [Romney] has more momentum. I think he attracts and will continue to attract anybody that could’ve been on the fence, like myself,” added Kuhar, who said he was undecided before Romney’s win in Michigan.

Of the 10 states hosting primaries or caucuses on Tuesday, few are as competitive as Ohio, a battleground state that will be important to the general election in November.

Santorum held an advantage over Romney in the state ahead of the voting this week in Michigan and Arizona, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday that found Santorum leading Romney, 36 percent to 29 percent with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 17 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 11 percent.

But Santorum faces an initial handicap in the race, too. While he’ll appear on the ballot statewide – giving him the chance to beat Romney – he’ll be ineligible to win delegates in the three congressional districts where he did not file delegate slates. He’ll lose out on the opportunity to win as many as nine delegates.

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“What people are beginning to understand is the conventional wisdom about Romney – that he would be the best candidate in the fall – is not true,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former senator who served with Santorum in Congress and had initially backed Romney for the nomination.

To that end, Santorum is set to rely on a similar formula that almost won him Michigan, looking to relate with working class voters and very conservative voters who feel uncomfortable or disconnected from Romney.

“I think he should play very well here,” said Peggy Moody of Steubenville, Ohio, who’s been unemployed for a year and a half since losing her job as a pharmaceutical sales representative. “I feel that Rick Santorum is much more genuine and he relates better to the people.”

But some Ohio voters also take umbrage at the suggestion that Romney can’t relate to voters in the state as well as Santorum.

“I look at it the same way,” said Brook Welker, who owns a small business that places outdoor signage throughout northwest Ohio, in reference to Romney’s well-publicized private sector career. “I acquire signs in disrepair – I acquire assets for my business, fix them up, and cut losses. It’s the same thing [with Romney] on a larger scale. I can identify.” 

Both Romney's and Santorum’s abilities to connect with voters will be an important test not just in Ohio, but in the nine other states hosting contests.

Moreover, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are each battling to rejuvenate their own candidacies by focusing on very specific caucuses and primaries. Victories by either candidate could infuse their campaigns with new momentum, or, at the very least, contribute to the growing possibility that the race for the GOP nomination will become a drawn-out battle for delegates.

Gail Gitcho of the Romney campaign explains whether the presidential candidate can now close the deal with the Republican base, gaining their support as well as the nomination.

“Every primary is important as you start to build your delegate count. Our goal is to help Gov. Romney achieve the goal,” said Ohio Senate President Tom Niehaus, a Republican who’s supporting Romney. “I certainly would hope that it would come to an end soon. But I think the reality is that we have a number of candidates who have said they’ll continue contesting contests through the early summer.”

The 10 states hosting primaries or caucuses on Super Tuesday are Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. A total of 437 delegates are at stake, although some states apportion them differently. In the case of Virginia, only Romney and Paul qualified for the ballot.

Romney has campaigned this week in Ohio, Idaho and North Dakota, and has dispatched surrogates to some of the other states. Gingrich has, meanwhile, fought most aggressively in his native Georgia and neighboring Tennessee. Santorum has planned stops in Tennessee and has done media in Oklahoma. Paul has also spread the map, but has made a particular point of challenging Romney head-to-head in Virginia.

Ten states have held their primaries already, with over 300 delegates up for grabs. That’s the same number of states that hold contests on Super Tuesday, except more delegates will be at stake on a single day than in two months’ worth of voting. An additional 11th state, Wyoming, is apportioning its delegates on Super Tuesday, too. The state of Washington additionally hosts caucuses this weekend.