Ohio is next battlefield for the GOP

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have taken their battle to Ohio, the biggest prize in next week’s Super Tuesday contests.

Ten states will vote on March 6, and more delegates will be won that day than have so far been awarded. Ohio has 66 delegates up for grabs, more than any other Super Tuesday state besides Georgia.

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Its primary will likely be close and closely watched. A win in Ohio, a critical swing state in the general election, would give the winner a big boost in the race for the nomination.

Romney was there on Wednesday, the day after winning primaries in Arizona and Michigan, while Santorum was there Tuesday and will campaign there again on Friday. Both are spending heavily in the state.

But they also have to balance their schedules. All the Super Tuesday states award their delegates proportionally, which means there are plenty of opportunities for candidates to add to their tallies. 

Time is a major constraint: Romney and Santorum have to pick and choose their battles, as will Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who skipped Michigan and Arizona to focus on the upcoming contests.



Santorum led in recent Ohio polls, but those numbers are likely to change after Romney’s Tuesday wins.


“This thing is very fluid,” said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine. “I wouldn’t put any stock into any poll that comes out in the next week.”

DeWine predicted a race that mirrored Michigan. “There are a lot of similarities between Ohio and Michigan — the economic issues are the same, the demographic patterns are the same,” he said. “I don’t tip the scales to either one of these guys at this point.”

Romney won narrowly in Michigan by carrying the Catholic vote, which Santorum — a devout Catholic — can’t let happen again.

The former Pennsylvania senator has been focused on social issues as of late, and many Republicans say he should switch to a manufacturing message that appeals to the blue-collar workers Santorum does well with.

“His decision to focus his election comments [Tuesday] night on his wife, his daughter and his mother really does suggest from a messaging standpoint they thought they were hurt among women,” said former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell (R), a leading social conservative. “Rick Santorum is a genuine, bona fide social conservative, he really doesn’t have to prove that with anyone. … [He should] focus on economic growth, job creation, and can do it without abandoning his commitment to the social issues.”

Romney should do well in greater Cleveland and Columbus, while Santorum should win heavily Catholic and conservative western Ohio along with the “Bible Belt” portion of the state in the Appalachian southeast. The real battle will play out in the exurban “collar counties” in the more rural and small-town center of the state. 

“The swing area will be central Ohio,” said former Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett.

An added wrinkle: Santorum failed to qualify for delegates for three congressional districts, including one in the Appalachian southeast. Ohio awards delegates on a district level and gives some to the candidate who won the state. Santorum is still on the statewide ballot, but this problem could cost him a few delegates. 

Here’s how the other Super Tuesday states break down:

Georgia
(primary, 76 delegates)

Gingrich is banking on a win here to save his campaign. Besides Tennessee and Oklahoma, the former House Speaker has focused almost exclusively on his home state. He holds double-digit leads over Santorum in two recent polls and is the only candidate campaigning hard there, although Santorum is scheduled to be there Thursday. Romney could win some delegates by winning congressional districts around Atlanta: His wife, Ann, was heading there to campaign on Thursday.

“It’s telling that Gingrich has decided to spend his final week in Georgia — they’re concerned that they could lose here,” said Georgia GOP strategist Joel McElhannon. “If [Santorum] were to pull out some kind of victory here, that’s the death knell for the Gingrich campaign.”

Tennessee 
(primary, 58 delegates)

Santorum and Gingrich are both hoping to win Tennessee, a Southern state with many social conservatives; Gingrich was there last week; Santorum was there Wednesday. A Middle Tennessee State University poll released Wednesday had Santorum at 40 percent, with Romney at 19 percent and Gingrich at 13 percent.

North Dakota 
(caucus, 28 delegates) 

Santorum and Paul have already visited, and Romney has a stop in Fargo scheduled on Thursday. The state’s caucus system and independent bent could make Paul competitive there.

Oklahoma 
(primary, 43 delegates)

The state is key for Santorum, who called Oklahoma “the place that we feel the best on Super Tuesday.” Gingrich has also campaigned there. A Rasmussen poll released Feb. 22 had Santorum leading with 43 percent, followed by Gingrich with 22 percent and Romney with 18 percent.

Virginia 
(primary, 49 delegates)

Stringent requirements in Virginia allowed just Romney and Paul on the ballot. The failure to get on the ballot was bad for Santorum but worse for Gingrich, who lives there. This contest should be a Romney slam-dunk: A Christopher Newport University poll released on Feb. 20 had Romney leading Paul by 30 points.

Idaho
(caucus, 32 delegates)

Paul is well-organized in the state, and he won a statewide GOP straw poll in January. But he won’t be alone in making his case to Idaho voters. Romney and Santorum have both visited the state already. The state’s large Mormon population should boost Romney’s numbers.

Alaska 
(caucus, 27 delegates)

Alaska’s caucus system and libertarian streak should help Paul, who is well-organized there as well. Romney won the state four years ago and has dispatched his son, Josh, to campaign on his behalf, but has no scheduled trips there himself. 

Vermont 
(primary, 17 delegates)

Moderates and independents dominate the Republican electorate here, and this should be an easy win for Romney, a Northeastern governor already familiar to many of the state’s voters. A Castleton Polling Institute survey released Monday had Romney in the lead with 34 percent.

Massachusetts 
(primary, 41 delegates)

This should be an easy win for Romney, a former governor of the state: He held a nearly 50-point lead over his rivals in a Suffolk University poll released Feb. 17.