By Cameron Joseph - 03/06/12 10:00 AM EST
Mitt Romney could all but guarantee he’ll be the GOP presidential nominee by winning Ohio on Super Tuesday.
A win there will hand Romney a chunk of delegates as well as a shot of momentum, making it hard for his opponents to catch him and bolstering the former Massachusetts governor’s argument that he’s the best choice to beat President Obama in the fall.
Romney has crept back into a statistical tie with Santorum after trailing him by double digits at the end of February. Five polls out Monday had the race within the margin of error.
Both men have been focused on the state this past week, and spent Monday in back-to-back events there.
Even if Romney loses Ohio, he will likely remain the GOP front-runner, since he’s almost certain to win a large majority of the delegates up for grabs, adding to his substantial lead in the delegate count.
But a loss would leave the Republican establishment gnashing its teeth about the long primary process and Romney’s inability to close the deal. It would likely reignite talk about how the field has been weakened and reopen the possibility of a contested convention.
“If Santorum wins Ohio, the jumper cables jolt him back to life for a while longer, which is not good for the party, not good for Romney, not good for anybody at this point,” said Castellanos. “They’re lighting cigars in the Oval Office if this race is extended.”
Ohio is also a crucial state in the general election: No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Republican strategists say a Romney loss there will inflame concerns that he can’t appeal to blue-collar and Midwestern voters.
But in a good sign for the former governor, Newt Gingrich said Monday that even if he only wins Georgia on Tuesday he’ll continue his campaign, and polls indicate he’ll win there. That would hurt Santorum, who said on Sunday that he needed a pure one-on-one contest against Romney to beat him.
Santorum will spend election night in Ohio while Romney will be in Massachusetts. He’s voting there on Tuesday but it would also allow him to downplay Ohio’s importance if he loses and permit him to pivot to a general-election message against Obama if he racks up big wins.
The next month could be rough for Romney, especially if he has the Ohio loss weighing down his campaign. Most of the next states to vote could be rocky terrain for him: Kansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri. Romney has not done well so far in the greater Midwest, already lost a “beauty contest” caucus vote in Missouri and has struggled mightily in the Deep South.
But many predicted Romney will eke out a win in Ohio.
“The polls put the race as too close to call, but underneath that is movement on the part of Romney,” said Professor Paul Beck of Ohio State University. “Romney is vastly outspending Santorum in Ohio, and has much better organization on the ground. Those things are important at the margins in a close contest.”
Beck said the recent flap over Rush Limbaugh’s controversial comments about a woman advocating for insurance to cover birth control had hurt Santorum, who had wounded himself by focusing too much on social issues leading up to Michigan’s primary, which he lost by three points. The former Pennsylvania senator had tried to avoid such topics this week.
“There is this perceived extremity from Santorum on some of the social conservative issues, which may be more salient now because of the Limbaugh flap and how people have reacted to that,” Beck said.
Tennessee is the other state to keep an eye on Tuesday. Romney has been within a few points of Santorum in polls of the state after trailing him by as many as 21 points just weeks ago.
“If Romney wins Ohio we’ll start to see the primary wind down, and if he wins Tennessee we’ll see it wind down a heck of a lot quicker,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell.
Romney is expected to win Vermont, his home state of Massachusetts and Virginia, a large state where Santorum and Gingrich failed to make the ballot.
Santorum, meanwhile, is favored in Oklahoma.
No matter how many wins he racks up, Romney is likely to get the biggest delegate boost, although all candidates will be far short of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination.
All the states voting Tuesday award their delegates proportionally, meaning a second-place finish would net him support.
But perception matters, and a loss in Ohio will hurt Romney even if he increases his delegate advantage.
“We’re a long way off from 1,144 delegates, and right now the media narrative is at least as important to the Romney campaign as the delegates are,” said O’Connell.