Romney and Santorum headed for Ohio dead heat as Super Tuesday goes to the wire
By Toby Harnden and Louise Boyle
Last updated at 11:33 PM on 6th March 2012
GOP candidates were pulling out all the stops and making a final push for votes last night as polls came to a close on Super Tuesday.
The pivotal day for the Republican presidential nomination saw Mitt Romney and his Republican rivals battle coast-to-coast across ten states for more than 400 delegates.
A win in Ohio holds the greatest political significance – a heavily populated industrial state that tested Rick Santorum’s ability to challenge Romney. Georgia, Newt Gingrich’s home political field, outranked the rest with 76 delegates at stake.
Other primaries were held in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Vermont, Massachusetts – where Romney served one term as governor. Caucuses in Virginia, North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska rounded out the calendar.
Speaking in Zanesville, Ohio last night, Romney made a determined push for blue-collar votes, hoping to land a knockout blow to main rival Rick Santorum, by deeming himself the only candidate who could fix the economy ‘because I’ve actually been in it’.
Victories in more than five states, combined with more than half of the 419 delegates at stake, could give Mr Romney an almost unassailable lead in the quest to secure the 1,144 delegates needed to be crown nominee at the party convention in Tampa in late August.
Romney, who is worth more than $200 million and has at times struggled to connect with ordinary people, said that the 2012 election centred around ‘whether the stresses on families are going to be alleviated, where you’ve got a mom working the day shift and a dad working a night shift and the kids not sure who’s home when’.
He unveiled a new slogan of ‘more jobs, less debt, smaller government’ that is as much aimed at President Obama as GOP rivals Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul.
Romney and Santorum, the two leading contenders, were locked in a dead heat in polls in Ohio. The former Massachusetts governor suggested that victory in the state, certain to be a key battleground in November, would all but guarantee him the nomination.
‘I hope that I get the support of people here in Ohio tomorrow, and in other states across the country,’ Romney said in Youngstown.
‘I believe if I do, I’ll get the nomination. And then we can start organising our effort to make sure that we replace President Obama.’
Buoyed by endorsements from conservative favourites like Representative Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader, and Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Romney has been campaigning as frontrunner after a string of five victories in Maine, Michigan, Arizona, Wyoming and Washington state.
In recent days, Romney has opened up a double-digit lead in national polls and is the clear favourite to win Virginia, where Santorum is not on the ballot, Massachusetts, Vermont and Idaho on Super Tuesday.
Gingrich is likely to take his native state of Georgia and also show strongly in Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, hopes to secure his first win of the campaign in Alaska and perhaps another in North Dakota.
But without any wins outside the South there would be pressure on Gingrich to drop out. Paul, whose uncompromising anti-war stances have meant he never had a realistic chance of the nomination was likely to stay in the race for the long haul.
Defeat in Ohio for Santorum would mean that his days in the contest could be numbered, especially if he failed to take more than one or two other states.
Prior to Super Tuesday, Santorum shifted from more peripheral social issues, in which he had been bogged down at times, and turned his fire onto Romney’s conservative record, questioning whether conservative voters could trust him after his healthcare reform in Massachusetts.
‘The underlying problem that I hear when I talk to people all over, they say they just don’t trust Mitt Romney to not do what’s the fashionable thing at the moment,’ he told reporters.
Romney stressed his economic message and business background as a venture capitalist as what was needed to oust Obama in the general election.
Touring a factory in Canton, Ohio, he said: ‘What I know is the economy. I’ve spent my life in the real economy. I understand why jobs come and why they go. Other people in this race have debated about the economy, they’ve read about the economy, they’ve talked about it in subcommittee meetings. But I’ve actually been in it.’
Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney aide, said his boss was rising in the polls because of a laser-like focus on the economy in recent days.
‘He’s boots on the ground in Ohio, conducting events, spreading his pro-jobs message. He’s not like other candidates, who get distracted by non-economic issues.
‘He stays focused on the economy, and I think that more than anything else explains why he’s surging.’
At a Christian school in Miamisburg, Ohio, Mr Santorum urged people to back ‘a guy who grew up in a steel town in western Pennsylvania’, who ‘went out and believed in free people’ and in ‘building a stronger economy based on manufacturing’.
He grumbled that Mr Romney, the establishment darling, had vastly outspent him in Ohio but insisted: ‘Money is not going to buy this election. The best ideas and believing in the American people is going to win this election.’