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Votes in key states today may reshape GOP race

By Matt Viser and Bobby Caina Calvan
Globe Staff / March 6, 2012
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CANTON, Ohio - Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were running neck-and-neck in this vital battleground state Monday, the eve of the biggest day of voting yet, as each scrambled to secure a win that could define the next phase of a volatile Republican nominating contest.

The former Massachusetts governor needs a dramatic show of strength here - and throughout the 10 states voting on Super Tuesday - to help him again seize control of the nominating contest.

Santorum also needs to win in Ohio, the state that so often determines general elections, to prove his strength among blue-collar workers and cement his stand as the chief alternative to Romney, extending the nominating fight.

Tennessee has emerged as another key battleground, viewed as a secondary prize that would illustrate who can win support in the South. Newt Gingrich is expected to carry Georgia, his home state and where he himself has said he must win to justify continuing his campaign.

More than 400 delegates are at stake across the country Tuesday, more than one-third of the 1,144 needed for the nomination.

Romney’s opponents showed little intention of letting up Monday. Santorum said Romney is “not a genuine article,’’ accused him of misleading voters, and suggested he is trying to buy the election through a barrage of negative ads. Gingrich resurrected criticisms of Romney’s wealth, saying he was “rich enough’’ to not understand the challenges average Americans experience with high gas prices.

The results on Tuesday night - in states ranging from Massachusetts to Alaska and Vermont to Georgia - will go a long way toward determining whether the Republican presidential contest is drawing closer toward a conclusion, or whether one of the most unpredictable races in a generation has yet another unexpected turn.

If Romney is able to win in the blue-collar bellwether of Ohio - and do well in Tennessee - it almost certainly would amplify calls from some within the party to begin consolidating around him so that Republicans can end a divisive primary and focus on defeating President Obama.

“If he wins, it will be a real shot in the arm to him and his campaign,’’ Senator Rob Portman, a Republican of Ohio who has endorsed Romney, said on Monday. “After Tuesday, you’ll see more people coalescing around Mitt Romney.’’

But there remained a distrust of the former Massachusetts governor, particularly among Tea Party activists, conservatives, and evangelicals.

Don Sundquist, the former governor of Tennessee and a Republican who is unaligned in this race, said if Romney wins Ohio and Tennessee, “I think he’s moving toward the nomination. It’s not done, though. There’s not anybody in there that people are enthused about. I think people would just like to get it over with. I just have a feeling it’s going to go on for a while. I don’t know why Romney can’t put it away.’’

If Romney were to lose Ohio and Tennessee, Republican Party leaders would be in shock, Sundquist said, and declare “maybe we need somebody new in the race; although it’s probably too late for that, it’s not inconceivable.’’

Santorum on Monday renewed attacks on Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts, which Obama used as a model for the federal plan that Republicans - including Romney - want to repeal.

Despite being outspent 12-to-1 in Ohio, Santorum said, he has been in a very close contest with Romney. “To suggest this is David and Goliath is probably a little bit of an understatement,’’ he told reporters.

Santorum made a direct appeal to Ohio’s blue-collar voters, reminding them of his working-class roots in neighboring Pennsylvania. Indeed, Santorum has chosen to hold his election night celebration in Steubenville, a tiny former steel town just a 90-minute drive from his boyhood home of Butler, Pa.

Santorum’s humble beginnings resonated with some voters, including Ed Webster, a house painter from Dayton.

“Romney is more about money and being for the wealthy,’’ he said. “I don’t know if he really cares about the middle class.’’

Romney on Monday sharpened his economic message, saying Republicans should not be distracted by other issues that are diverting from an effective argument against Obama.

Romney never mentioned Santorum by name, but the comments seemed aimed at the former senator, who has not shied from talking about issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and religion. Romney’s comments also came amid controversy over contraception coverage and disparaging comments made by conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh about a Georgetown law student.

“I look at this campaign right now and I see a lot of folks all talking about lots of things,’’ Romney said Monday. “But what we need to talk about to defeat Barack Obama is getting good jobs and scaling back the size of government - and that’s what I do. What I know is the economy.’’

Romney aides are predicting that he will win a majority of delegates. “The party has already begun to coalesce behind Mitt Romney,’’ Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser, said on Monday. “He’s not like other candidates who get distracted by noneconomic issues. He stays focused on the economy, and I think that, more than anything else, explains why he’s surging.’’

Romney is expected to win Massachusetts and neighboring Vermont, in what would make a sweep of all the New England states to vote so far. He is also expected to win the caucuses in Idaho, where a large number of voters who share Romney’s Mormon faith, and capture the primary in Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich failed to meet the requirements to get on the ballot.

Elsewhere in the South, where Romney has struggled to attract support from conservatives and evangelical Christians, he has cut into Santorum’s once-strong lead in Tennessee and trails the former senator by about 2 percentage points, according to an average of recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics. On Sunday, Romney drew about 1,000 people to a rally with Governor Bill Haslam in Knoxville, and his campaign and super PAC are advertising heavily on television.

“As things have tightened down in the last 10 or 12 days, I’m convinced Romney is beginning to build a head of momentum, and I think he’s going to close in Tennessee as a close second-place finisher or as the winner,’’ said Winfield Dunn, a former Tennessee governor and Romney’s honorary state chairman.

Tennessee will divide its 58 delegates under a “winner-take-most’’ formula, but its symbolic value in the heart of the South may be, for Romney, just as important as its delegate count.

In Georgia, which Gingrich represented for 20 years in Congress, the former speaker has a wide lead - about 20 points over Romney, his nearest competitor, according to recent polls. The state, with 78 delegates, is considered a must-win for Gingrich; he has said he needs a victory in his old home state to remain a credible candidate.

Oklahoma, with 43 delegates, holds more promise for Santorum. Recent polls there show he has about an 11-point lead over Romney, although Romney on Sunday won the endorsement of the state’s conservative senator, Tom Coburn.

After spending the past week hopscotching around the country, Romney on Tuesday afternoon will return to Boston. He plans to vote near his home in Belmont before holding a party at the Westin Copley Place in the evening.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this article. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com.

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