Ohio attorney general ditches Romney, backs Santorum

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) dropped his endorsement of Mitt Romney on Friday and backed Rick Santorum.

DeWine endorsed the former Pennsylvania senator at a campaign event in Columbus. The attorney general and former U.S. senator had endorsed Romney in October.

"To be elected president, you have to do more than tear down your opponents," DeWine said in a statement.  "You have to give the American people a reason to vote for you — a reason to hope — a reason to believe that under your leadership, America will be better. Rick Santorum has done that. Sadly, Gov. Romney has not.

"For some time now, it has been clear to me that Rick Santorum should be the Republican nominee for president," DeWine added. "To be frank, I've had some sleepless nights. I could not, in good conscience, be on record endorsing Gov. Romney when I knew in my heart that Rick Santorum was the better candidate."

The defection is a coup for Santorum, who has jumped to the front of the GOP pack in polls. 

A source with knowledge of the Romney campaign said DeWine was angered by a super-PAC ad that hit Santorum for backing an amendment in 2002 that would have given former felons the right to register to vote after finishing their sentences, parole and probation. 

Santorum voted for the amendment, which failed, alongside then-Sen. DeWine.

On a conference call, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu (R), a Romney surrogate, reinforced the claim of why DeWine switched to Romney.

"It is my understanding that the super-PAC that supports Gov. Romney had an ad out there that mentioned that Rick Santorum supported this amendment, which gives voting rights to convicted felons," Sununu said earlier Friday. "The only three Republicans who voted for that amendment where Arlen Specter, Rick Santorum and Mike DeWine. We've had people tell us they were upset the issue was raised by the super-PAC that was favorable to Mitt Romney, so he's making the change."

Sununu also took a shot at DeWine, arguing his endorsement will have little impact in Ohio.

"As I understand it, attorneys general don't have that much of an organization," Sununu said.

The Romney campaign has pivoted its attacks to Santorum in response to his sudden rise. The two campaigns have been trading barbs in Michigan, where Romney grew up and his father served as a popular GOP governor. Romney won the state by nine points in the 2008 Republican primary, and Santorum has recently been polling ahead there.

— This story was first posted at 12:50 p.m. and has been updated.

— Josh Lederman contributed reporting.