Many voters love Rick Santorum's positions, but they're ready to settle for Romney's superior organization and presumed electability.
COLUMBUS, Ohio - On the surface, Ohio looks like a toss-up between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Polls published on Sunday show the two White House contenders in a dead heat for Super Tuesday's most symbolically important state.
But the ostensible parity belies an unmistakable conviction among Buckeye State voters and state GOP strategists alike that the former Massachusetts governor has the advantage here Tuesday, despite trailing in some surveys by double-digits only weeks ago. They say that Romney's superior organization, his television ad campaign and his message discipline -- coupled with Santorum's mistakes -- could help him overcome his early deficit and eke out a win, just as he did on Feb. 28 in Michigan, where he also trailed in the polls.
"Ohio is tracking what Gov. Romney has done in other states," said Jon Husted, the Republican secretary of state, who is unaffiliated in the presidential race. "Romney comes into state leading up to the election and unloads the cannons, and you see he generates momentum. That model they have employed in other states is what they're doing here, and it's seemingly having the same effect."
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Romney also has history on his side: Picking the establishment-friendly Romney over the insurgent Santorum would be typical of Ohio, a state with a relatively centrist GOP. Only 44 percent of its voters identified as evangelicals in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, according to exit polls, a far lower percentage than in states like Iowa and South Carolina. That is why John McCain, who had already effectively sewn up the nomination, beat challenger Mike Huckabee here four years ago by nearly 2-to-1.
"Among Republicans, that's been the tradition in Ohio," said Curt Steiner, a Columbus-based GOP strategist who supports Romney but doesn't work for his campaign. He noted that the trend has modified somewhat with the advent of the Tea Party, but added, "It's not enough" for Santorum.
Romney's biggest edge is readily apparent every time a TV set is turned on. His campaign and the super PAC supporting him, Restore Our Future, are heavily outspending their rivals. As the Associated Press reported, the two entities have combined for $3.6 million in ads here, with some of the ads blasting Santorum for voting to fund Planned Parenthood when he was in the Senate.
Spending by the Santorum super PAC, The Red, White and Blue Fund, totals just over $500,000 and looks like a pop gun in comparison.
The ad bombardment is propelling Romney's momentum after his victory in Michigan last week and in Washington state's nonbinding caucus Saturday night. He has won the last five GOP contests. His narrow victory in Michigan helped him reassert his front-runner status, and Gallup's tracking poll Sunday showed him with a commanding 14-point national lead over Santorum -- a little over a week after the survey showed the two men tied.
"I think it looks like it's moving in Governor Romney's favor," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who has been Romney's chief surrogate in the state. "What happened in Michigan was probably helpful, that's our neighboring state. I really think folks want a winner. They are looking for a candidate who shares their values and a candidate who can win in November, and they find in Mitt Romney both of those things."
Political operatives generally dismiss the importance of ground games in a large state that has seen only a few weeks of serious campaigning, but even there, Romney still holds a decided edge. The ex-governor's campaign transferred staff to Ohio immediately after the Jan. 31 primary in Florida, and has co-chairs in each of the state's 88 counties.
Santorum, meanwhile, failed to file delegates in three congressional districts and only partially filled his slate in six others, costing him as many as 18 potential delegates Tuesday. It was an embarrassing mistake for the former senator from Pennsylvania, and indicative of a shoestring organization that has relied heavily on volunteer support here. "The threshold is very low for qualifying for the ballot," Husted said.
Romney and Santorum have also espoused sharply different messages in Ohio. During a Saturday speech at U.S. Aeroteam, a Dayton-area aerospace and defense manufacturing plant, Romney focused on a checklist of proposals to kick start the economy. Missing was any mention of abortion rights, contraception and other hot-button social topic.
"My goal if I become president is pretty straight forward -- jobs," he said.
Ohio's blue-collar electorate should work to Santorum's advantage, and he rarely misses a chance to mention he's from neighboring Pennsylvania. During multiple stops, he seemed to drop the pretense that his campaign doesn't hinge on cultural topics. He mentioned the importance of lowering tax rates and encouraging natural gas drilling, but those proposals were often buried in speeches that dwelled on the importance of restoring liberty and protecting the family.
"I have the strongest record of standing up for moral and cultural values of this country," Santorum told a gathering of Republicans in Allen County, located in the state's conservative northwest corner. "I understand you can't have a prosperous America unless you have stable families and communities."
Later, referencing the importance of two-parent families, he added, "Folks, if we know what works, why don't we talk about it?"
The overtly social conservative message is potentially problematic for Santorum - Ohio's relatively small Evangelical population doesn't have the influence it does in other, more conservative states. And even if they personally agree with Santorum on cultural issues, some Ohio Republicans are nervous about supporting Santorum because his incendiary rhetoric could make him unelectable in the fall.
"What's a lady's pregnancy have to do with the economy?" says Larry Hardin.
"I agree with him for the most part," said Dan Allnutt, a 32-year-old attorney, of Santorum. "But when he gets boxed in on some of these social issues and forgets the most important issue, the economy, he shoots himself in the foot."
Allnutt attended Romney's Saturday rally in Dayton with his mother, Diane Allnutt, who described herself as a Christian who agrees with Santorum on most issues. But, like her son, she also has doubts about his electability. "I like what he's saying, but it's about the economy," she said.
Others had the same doubts, including Larry Hardin. The 73-year-old home appraiser attended Santorum's Friday rally in Chillicothe, unsure of whom to vote for Tuesday. Even if he's still undecided, he has reservations about Santorum's focus on jobs. As he put it, "What's a lady's pregnancy have to do with the economy?"
Beth Reinhard contributed to this story
Image: Laura Segall / Reuters