Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
By STEVEN R. HURST | AP
Published: Mar 5, 2012 21:25 Updated: Mar 5, 2012 22:01
WASHINGTON: Mitt Romney hopes to use Tuesday’s massive batch of presidential primary contests in 10 states to reassert himself as the unchallenged front-runner in the Republican race to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama.
On the eve of the biggest day of voting so far — the so-called Super Tuesday batch of primaries and caucuses — Romney had picked up key endorsements from Rep. Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, and fellow conservatives Sen. Tom Coburn and John Ashcroft, a former attorney general and senator.
The outcome could again reshape the nomination battle which has seen several candidates make a serious run at Romney — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum being the latest.
Fully one-third of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination are at stake Tuesday, altogether a larger prize than all the previous primaries and caucuses combined. Obama picked Tuesday for his first news conference of the year, a chance to steal a bit of thunder from the Republicans on their big day and defend a record of economic stewardship that is under daily assault from the opposition.
The former Massachusetts governor is gaining momentum, following his fourth straight victory in Saturday’s low-turnout Washington state caucuses.
In a CNN interview Monday morning, Cantor said: “What we’re doing is we’re coalescing around Mitt Romney’s plan to actually address the economic challenges we have.”
Ashcroft, an attorney general under George W. Bush, threw his support behind Romney on Monday. “No other candidate stands out for his executive leadership experience or ability to accomplish difficult task as does Mitt Romney,” he said.
Many of the most conservative Republicans distrust Romney’s ideological purity because of his moderate positions in the past on such key issues as abortion, gay marriage and health care reform.
With Santorum now leading a charge based on an intensifying debate over conservative social values, those issues are threatening to overshadow an emphasis on the economic concerns of Americans that could be the key to winning the November election. Obama is most vulnerable on the economy, which has struggled throughout the first three years of his presidency, following the near collapse of the US financial system in the last months of the George W. Bush presidency.
Romney and Santorum spent Sunday racing across Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Ohio, four of the 10 states to host contests Tuesday.
Speaking to supporters at a guardrail factory in Canton, Ohio, Romney tried to snap the subject back to the economy and away from social conservative issues — this, after a furor erupted from radio host Rush Limbaugh’s caustic comments about a college student who testified to Congress about contraception.
“I look at this campaign right now and I see a lot of folks all talking about lots of things, 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,” Romney said. “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.”
Santorum told Ohio residents the election must be earned, not “bought,” in another swipe at Romney’s wealth and superior campaign machine. “Look into what the candidates have overcome and what they offer to this country — not just what money they have,” he told hundreds of students and supporters at Dayton Christian School, “but where’s the soul, where’s the conviction, where’s the fight?“
Super Tuesday’s defining contest may be in the big Midwestern industrial state of Ohio, where Santorum and Romney have devoted tremendous time and resources in recent weeks. Santorum’s performance there could well define his fate — and Romney’s — in the roller coaster race going forward. New polling shows them in a statistical tie in the state.
Preparing for the worst, Romney’s campaign began preparing for a possible loss in Ohio, where polls show him locked in a dead heat with Santorum, though the latest polls found Santorum slipping there.
“I don’t think any state is a must-win,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. “I think the only must-do on a candidate’s check list is getting 1,144 delegates.”
All told, 419 delegates are at stake Tuesday. Romney leads with 203 delegates from previous contests, Santorum has 92, Newt Gingrich has 33 and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, 25.
Romney’s broad, well-disciplined organization virtually assures he’ll collect more delegates than his opponents on Tuesday, in contrast with Santorum’s looser group of supporters. Santorum and Gingrich did not collect enough signatures to qualify for the Virginia ballot, for example, and Santorum cannot win 18 of Ohio’s 66 delegates for similar reasons.
But a win by the overmatched Santorum in Ohio would send a broad signal that Romney, long presumed the front-runner, is far weaker than imagined.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, appeared on four Sunday morning television talk shows, reflecting his strategy of using media appearances to offset his advertising and organizational disadvantages. Paul campaigned in Alaska in an effort to pick up delegates in small states holding caucuses, where supporters deeply committed to his libertarian views are likely to turn out.
Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman, has declared the state he represented for 20 years a must-win. He holds a strong lead in recent polls there. On Sunday he predicted the race would go on “for a good while.”
The 10 contests which span politically diverse regions. Other states holding primaries that day include Vermont and Massachusetts, where Romney is heavily favored. Alaska, North Dakota and Idaho are holding caucuses.