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."