Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney are campaigning in contrasting appeals to blocs of voters divided by income and schooling in Ohio, the most coveted Super Tuesday prize in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
With polls showing a virtual tie in Ohio’s March 6 primary, Santorum is trying to build a coalition of lower-income voters, evangelical Christians and Catholics as he seeks to prove that he can win a big-state contest and be a viable challenger to President Barack Obama in November, while Romney is working to boost support among more traditional Republicans.
They put their strategies on display this weekend in the Cincinnati area, a Republican stronghold, as Santorum held an event in an old hotel ballroom in a suburb near the edge of the metropolitan area while Romney hosted supporters at an upscale barbecue restaurant in a trendy section of downtown.
Their appeals spoke of a party fractured along economic and educational lines in Ohio, as it is nationally.
Santorum “has the ability to reach out to the common Ohioan, the average Ohioan,” Mike DeWine, the state’s attorney general and a former Romney supporter, told voters at the Santorum event north of Cincinnati.
It’s a strategy that almost worked for Santorum in last week’s Michigan primary, until he was thrown off course by his statements about education, contraception and other issues in a contest that has centered on the nation’s economy, and a hammering from Romney and his allies in television ads.
Ohio offers a second chance for Santorum, whose lead in the state’s polls has slipped as the vote nears, just as his onetime polling advantage eroded in Michigan.
Romney, who won a nonbinding straw poll during Washington state’s caucuses over the weekend, is gaining on Santorum in Ohio, according to a NBC/Marist poll released yesterday. Santorum had the support of 34 percent of likely primary voters, compared to 32 percent for Romney, within the margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
The poll showed almost two-thirds of likely voters in Ohio -- 62 percent -- aren’t college graduates, compared with Michigan, where exit polls showed 49 percent of voters hadn’t finished college. The proportion of likely Ohio voters who consider themselves evangelical Christians is roughly equal to the level seen in Michigan’s exit polling, about 40 percent.
Participants in the NBC/Marist poll were asked who has the best chance of beating Obama in the fall: Romney was named by 53 percent, compared with Santorum at 18 percent. More than half of likely Ohio voters said beating Obama is more important to them than having a candidate who is a “true conservative.”
Nationally, support from conservatives has given Romney the lead among the Republican contenders in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released today. Romney was supported by 38 percent of those surveyed and Santorum by 32 percent; former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas were tied at 13 percent. The telephone poll was conducted Feb. 29-March 3 among 400 Republican primary voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
In the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in January, Gingrich was the leader with 37 percent, followed by Romney, Santorum and Paul.
Santorum has advantages in Ohio. The former senator is from neighboring Pennsylvania, he routinely speaks of a family history with working-class ties and he’s Catholic.
The Catholic vote in Ohio may be slightly smaller in proportion than in Michigan, where exit polls show 30 percent of primary voters were Catholics and Romney and Santorum did equally well among them. In 2008, Catholics represented 26 percent of the Ohio primary electorate.
In Michigan, Romney won almost half the vote of those making more than $100,000 a year, while Santorum had the stronger showing among those with lower incomes -- he carried about 40 percent of voters earning less than $50,000. Santorum also won a plurality of those who haven’t attended college.
At his March 3 Cincinnati event, Romney told several hundred supporters crowded into a heated boathouse outside a restaurant that he wants to restore the “free-market dynamics” that made America a “powerhouse.” Afterwards, he greeted diners in the restaurant and posed for pictures as families enjoyed steak and ribs with their river view.
Earlier in the day, Santorum greeted a crowd mostly dressed in jeans and sweatshirts and without campaign-provided drinks, food or chairs.
Campaign, PAC Spending
As he did in Michigan, Romney will have a more robust get- out-the-vote effort in Ohio, and his campaign and allies have spent heavily on television advertising in the state.
Spending by Romney’s campaign and a political action committee backing him outpaced expenditures on behalf of Santorum by about 10 to 1, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising.
The Romney campaign and Restore Our Future, a super- political action committee that supports him, spent $1.8 million to air ads 3,713 times on Ohio broadcast television through March 1, CMAG reported. The Red White and Blue Fund, a super-PAC backing Santorum, had spent $181,250 to air ads 371 times.
“The disparity and financial resources show up on election day,” said Herb Asher, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
Santorum will appeal to social conservatives in western and southwestern Ohio, including the Cincinnati area, while Romney should do well in the northeast, including Cleveland, where the economy is the overriding issue, said Robert T. Bennett, former Ohio Republican Party chairman. Southeastern Ohio could go either way, while central Ohio around Columbus and a corridor along Interstate Highway 75 will be battleground areas, he said.
Santorum’s campaign made automated phone calls to Democrats before last week’s Michigan primary to urge them to vote for their candidate. There doesn’t yet appear to be a similar effort under way in Ohio, spokesmen for the state political parties said yesterday.
Ohio, like Michigan, allows voters from other parties to cast ballots in the Republican primary. In the 2008 Democratic primary in Ohio, radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh promoted what he called “Operation Chaos” by encouraging Republican voters to cast ballots for Hillary Clinton to prolong the Democratic primary fight with Obama at the time.
Other Primary States
Even as both leading candidates focused on Ohio, each traveled to southern states that also hold contests on March 6, the so-called Super Tuesday when more than 400 of the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination are at stake in one day.
With polls in Ohio and Tennessee showing his lead shrinking, Santorum said he plans to remain in the race regardless of whether he wins on Super Tuesday.
“This is a game of survivor,” he told reporters after greeting voters at Corky’s Ribs and BBQ in Memphis. “We’re either first or second in most of the states out there and I think that’s going to be a good Super Tuesday for us.”
Romney campaigned in Georgia and Tennessee yesterday, as his campaign played down expectations there on March 6.
“I don’t know if we can win Georgia or Tennessee, but I know that we can take delegates out of there,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney strategist. “This is a delegate contest, and more important than winning this state or that state is achieving the requisite number of delegates to obtain the nomination.”
Emphasis on Economy
In Ohio, both Santorum and Romney have stressed the economy. Santorum told his audience outside Cincinnati that his proposal to lower taxes on manufacturers would transform the nation’s “Rust Belt” to the “Stainless Steel Belt” because it would renew the region with expanding employers.
Ohio’s unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in January, compared with 8.3 percent nationwide, The Buckeye State ranked fifth for improvement in economic health in the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States from the third quarter of 2009 through the third quarter of last year, the most recent period available.
--With assistance from Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Knoxville, Tennessee and Lisa Lerer in Memphis. Editors: Mark Silva, Robin Meszoly
To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Cincinnati at email@example.com; Mark Niquette in Columbus at firstname.lastname@example.org
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