Santorum Faces Steep Challenge In Ohio

Rick Santorum campaigned in Ohio Friday, ahead of the state's critical primary on Super Tuesday. On its face, Ohio would seem to be fertile ground for Santorum with its large numbers of evangelicals and Tea Party supporters. But Santorum faces a steep challenge — Romney and a superPAC supporting him are dramatically outspending all the candidates on the TV and radio airwaves.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We kick off this hour with a couple of numbers to keep in mind.

SIEGEL: Ten, that's the number of states holding Republican presidential primaries or caucuses next Tuesday.

CORNISH: Sixty-six, that's the number of delegates up for grabs in Ohio. It's one of Super Tuesday's biggest prizes.

SIEGEL: And that's why you'll find the candidates making frequent visits there. Rick Santorum, in particular, is hoping that the conservative base in Ohio will rally to his cause.

CORNISH: But the latest polls from Ohio show a narrowing in the big lead Santorum has enjoyed. NPR's national political correspondent, Don Gonyea, sent this story from Ohio.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: If Santorum had won Michigan, it would have been a huge boost to his campaign. Now, he wants, perhaps even needs, a win in Ohio to restore some momentum and prove that he can still be a real contender. So today, he's back in the state, even as Super Tuesday demands that he also campaign around the country, as well. This afternoon, he was in Chillicothe, south of the capital, Columbus.

RICK SANTORUM: Great to be in Ohio, the center of the political universe in America. It's great to be here.

GONYEA: And if people can't see Santorum in person in Ohio in the run-up to Super Tuesday, he's all over the airwaves in interviews with local radio stations. This is from WTAM in Cleveland.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: I am told we are joined live by Senator Rick Santorum for the next couple. Sir, good morning, I appreciate your time, first of all. I know you're busy.

SANTORUM: Well, great. Great to be with you. Thank you for...

GONYEA: And Santorum is getting help from outside groups running ads on his behalf, including the conservative Susan B. Anthony list.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Rick Santorum will beat Obama with a plan that puts protecting our families at the center. On life, marriage and religious liberty...

GONYEA: Santorum's stump speech hasn't changed. He's still attacking Mitt Romney as too moderate, for not being a true conservative and he's going after President Obama. He is mixing economic populism, saying he'll help the little guy, with lots of talk about family values and social issues. Sixty-three-year-old Pam Caltenback(ph) was at the Chillicothe rally with her husband.

PAM CALTENBACK: We're Catholics, so the issue of the government butting in on the birth control issue really bothers me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: He counts is as, like, the federal government, the Obama administration's war on religion and the Catholic Church, you...

CALTENBACK: And I agree with that.

GONYEA: Santorum almost won Michigan with a coalition of Tea Party members, Evangelical voters and those who just don't like or trust Mitt Romney. In Ohio, he's helped by the fact that Romney is no longer in his home state. Here's University of Akron political scientist David Cohen.

DAVID COHEN: In Ohio, other than running for president in 2008 and 2012, nobody would know who this guy was. He has no ties to Ohio.

GONYEA: But a negative for Santorum is Newt Gingrich, who did not contest Michigan at all. Ohio is a different story. Tune in to an hour of conservative talk radio in the state and you'll hear a heavy rotation of ads in support of Gingrich paid for by the Winning Our Future superPAC. This ad goes after Mitt Romney and Santorum.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Mitt's a successful business guy and all, but he's just not one of us. And Rick, he's never led anything and he lost a Senate seat to what's-his-name.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: To Bob Casey by 18 points.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Right.

GONYEA: Romney, meanwhile, is also running ads targeting Santorum's record and the fact that while in Congress he voted for bills that included funding for Planned Parenthood. Then, there is another obstacle for Santorum in Ohio. He's paying the price for a campaign that is long on enthusiasm, but short on organization. In three of Ohio's 16 congressional districts, he didn't meet requirements to get fully on the ballot, so he's not eligible to win delegates in those districts. Again, David Cohen.

COHEN: Which means that, you know, Santorum comes into election night with a deficit of nine delegates. Now, can he make that up? Absolutely. But he is at a slight disadvantage because his campaign operation really wasn't up to speed in order to file the proper paperwork to get on the ballot everywhere.

GONYEA: Still, Cohen says, there's a big opportunity for Santorum. Ohio, as a whole, and Ohio Republicans in particular, are more conservative than their counterparts in the Great Lakes State to the north. The question, however, is if the former senator's campaign is able to take advantage of that. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Chillicothe, Ohio.

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