MASON, Ohio — Presidential candidate Rick Santorum is raising the stakes in the GOP nomination race in Ohio, declaring the state "ground zero" as he aggressively campaigns for one of Super Tuesday's biggest prizes.
More delegates will be awarded in Ohio than in any other state except Georgia in the opening months of the Republican campaign. Ohio and Georgia are two of the 10 contests scheduled for March 6, a benchmark for the primary campaign that often decides who can continue to the next level.
After three events in Ohio on Friday, Santorum is scheduled to begin Saturday with a tea party rally in Columbus. He then plans to attend a luncheon with the Ohio Christian Alliance and finish his day at a Lincoln Day dinner in Akron.
"There's no state that can shout louder. You are the biggest state. You've got the biggest trove of delegates," Santorum told the Brown County Republican Party on Friday night. "This is ground zero. Ohio."
While 63 delegates are at stake in Ohio, Georgia offers 76.
Hours earlier, the former Pennsylvania senator stood at the State House in Columbus as state Attorney General Mike DeWine formally shifted his allegiance to Santorum from rival Mitt Romney, another sign that Santorum has seized the momentum in the roller coaster Republican presidential contest.
His socially conservative message has captivated crowds this week from Boise, Idaho, to Romney's hometown of Detroit to the southern Ohio village of Georgetown.
"We have a culture that is in need of renewal," Santorum declared inside the Georgetown Elementary School gymnasium. "Big things are at stake. Our family. Our faith."
Questions about whether Santorum can sustain his rise in the polls come amid signs of stress within his campaign, mainly disorganization. Romney's mammoth political machine — coupled with new scrutiny for Santorum's view of social issues as well as governmental policies — will give Santorum little margin for error.
As an example, one misstep by a Santorum supporter kept the former senator off message at times for two days.
Foster Friess, the main donor behind Santorum's "super PAC," created a stir Thursday when he related on MSNBC an old joke about how aspirin used to be a method for birth control. "Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception," Friess said with a grin. "The gals put it between their knees and it wasn't that costly."
Friess apologized Friday in a blog post. But Santorum was repeatedly forced to distance himself from his surrogate's comments, which Santorum described as "a bad joke." The comments drew unwanted attention to Santorum's own musings about contraception and women's issues.
Santorum has said that he wouldn't try to take away the birth control pill or condoms but that states should be free to ban them. He told a Christian blog last year that as president he would warn the nation about "the dangers of contraception" and the permissive culture spit encourages. He's also questioned whether women should be in combat and said that "radical feminists" have undermined the traditional family by "convincing women that professional accomplishments are the key to happiness."
Speaking to reporters after the DeWine announcement, Santorum said he and his wife, as Catholics, don't practice birth control.
"To be attacked on that, which I have been, that somehow or another that just because I personally believe this, that somehow now I'm going to be the uber-czar that's going to try to impose that on the rest of the country, it's absurd," he said. "It's absurd on its face, and it's absurd based on my record in the Congress."
The contraception flap, according to Republican observers, is evidence of an undisciplined campaign that is already stumbling under the weight of intensifying scrutiny. Polling suggests that significant numbers of voters still don't know Santorum well. And he may struggle to win over female voters in particular as they begin to pay more attention, according to Phil Musser, a GOP strategist who doesn't work for either campaign.
"I think in the next couple days, we could start to see some serious erosion with respect for female support for Santorum in the Republican primary," he said. "And that is a short-term challenge for him as we head into Michigan and beyond. But secondarily, one of my big questions is, Could he compete aggressively against President Obama if he's upside down on the gender line?"
The Romney campaign countered on another front in a conference call at roughly the same time as Santorum's DeWine announcement. It was the third consecutive day the campaign hosted such a conference call, although each featured Romney supporters from different states.
John Sununu, a former White House chief of staff and a Romney supporter based in New Hampshire, described Santorum as "a candidate who loves spending and frankly supports liberal labor causes and liberal social causes, like giving voting rights to felons."
Santorum, while in the Senate, supported restoring voting rights to felons once they had completed their sentence or parole.
Despite being outspent on the airwaves so far, Santorum leads various recent polls in Michigan and Ohio.
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.