Ohio Is Key Test For GOP Hopefuls Ohio is one of 10 states holding contests to pick their party's presidential nominee on Super Tuesday. The conventional wisdom has been that whoever takes Ohio in the general election goes on to win the White House, which makes the state the main focus of attention for GOP candidates.
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Ohio Is Key Test For GOP Hopefuls

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Ohio Is Key Test For GOP Hopefuls

Ohio Is Key Test For GOP Hopefuls

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz.

It's not over until the Buckeye State puts a nominee in the basket. Ohio's only one of 10 states holding contests on Super Tuesday, but it's become so critical to Republican primary prospects. And the conventional wisdom that whoever takes Ohio in the general election takes the White House is so enduring that Tuesday's contest has the big mo: as in momentum. Our cover story today: How Ohio puts the super in Super Tuesday.

And we'll start with NPR's Tamara Keith who's been checking the mood of voters in the state.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: We caught up with Matt Greene at a pancake breakfast in Hudson. He's still undecided, though he says he'll ultimately vote for one of the front-runners. He's jut not sure yet whether it will be Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney who gets his vote.

MATT GREENE: Nobody's coming forth with everything that I'd like to hear. Santorum and Romney, they both tend to put their foot in their mouth too often.

KEITH: Greene says Santorum's views on faith and social issues appeal to him. But he's also concerned about the economy and feels the government should be run more like a business, which would favor Romney.

GREENE: I believe in a lot of the things that Romney says. I just don't know if he understands what the average man and woman needs.

KEITH: At a Rick Santorum event, Jessica Kramer of Mentor says she's not sure if she can get behind him.

JESSICA KRAMER: I really need to know that he's going to be a true fiscal conservative, and that's why I'm kind of leaning more towards Ron Paul.

KEITH: Outside of a Wal-Mart, Ed Seymour of Mansfield is quite clear on his choice: Mitt Romney. Because he thinks Romney has the best shot at beating President Obama.

ED SEYMOUR: I don't like the health care, I don't like the economy, and I don't like Obama.

KEITH: All Ed Ely of Painesville wants is for the candidates to put their differences aside and come together.

ED ELY: Because, really, what the big picture is that we're going after, you know, the White House in 2012, not going against each other. And if we go against each other, nothing is going to get done.

KEITH: Regardless of how Ohio turns out on Tuesday, Ely isn't likely to get his wish anytime soon, because it looks like this primary fight will be raging well after Super Tuesday. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Cincinnati.

LYDEN: Ohio has sent seven of its own citizens to the White House, though not since Warren Harding was president. Its current Republican governor, John Kasich, hit the skids in opinion polls after last year's state fight over unions, but he has edged up a bit recently to 44 percent, as has President Obama, to 47 percent. That's according to a new Facebook political poll.

Cleveland Plain Dealer political reporter Henry Gomez says that for Buckeye voters, there's really only two issues that matter.

HENRY GOMEZ: Jobs and the economy. You know, the recession hit parts of Ohio particularly bad, and things are starting to show signs of improvement. The new unemployment rate, it showed in January a drop to 7.7 percent. State employers added 32,000 jobs in January. So things are starting to improve recently, but still, you can't say it enough. There's a lot of angst about income, about jobs and long-term economic stability.

LYDEN: You know, I know that you're obviously with the Cleveland Plain Dealer but certainly travel around the state. It's a big state. What could you say are issues of interest to voters in Cincinnati compared to, say, people in Youngstown?

GOMEZ: If you look at Youngstown and the eastern portion of the state, there's a lot of talk right now about, you know, drilling and shale and fracking, and there have been some earthquakes in the Youngstown area that have been blamed on this drilling boom that's going on in such areas.

It's a twofold concern right now. And Rick Santorum, if you noticed it on the night of the Michigan primary, he held up a piece of shale. Now, he was talking about North Dakota, but he could've well been talking about Youngstown, Ohio, or Steubenville, Ohio. These are places where the drilling boom is expected to bring a lot of jobs and improve the economic fortunes of a lot of people, but there's also environmental concerns.

And when Rick Santorum held up that piece of shale Tuesday night in Michigan, he talked about how this was such an important part for the economy, but people had to be concerned about Washington policy and environmental policy. So that's definitely a big concern more so in Youngstown than, say, Cincinnati where people are looking at other jobs that have been lost.

LYDEN: How galvanized are Republicans? What do you expect turnout will be?

GOMEZ: You know, I suspect turnout, at least in Cuyahoga County, which is where I work from, (unintelligible) looking at the mail-in votes, which is at play here in Ohio, early voting has been under way for several weeks, it's actually down compared with 2010, and it's up over 2008 because more people are taking advantage of this. But they're still split. You talk to people who've been supporting Herman Cain, then they started supporting Newt Gingrich, now they're supporting Rick Santorum. And, you know, there are still a lot of Tea Party voters in Ohio. There are a lot of conservative Christians in Ohio.

But there's still people, especially in the Cleveland area, that are going to go with Romney because they're more moderate Republicans. So they're galvanized, they're just not all galvanized behind one candidate, and that can be a problem when they want to beat Barack Obama in November.

LYDEN: Now, based on returns last night from the Washington state caucuses, Mitt Romney triumphed, notching double-digit victory. That's five victories in a row for the former governor of Massachusetts. And with today's endorsement from Eric Cantor, Mr. Romney is no doubt feeling pretty good about his chances to lock in the front-runner title after Tuesday's primaries.

LYDEN: One member of the Republican establishment that Romney has not run over is Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. Well, to be fair, Mitt Romney did actually win him over at one point. But last month, DeWine switched his endorsement from Romney to Rick Santorum.

LYDEN: I spoke with Mike DeWine about his decision to flip in the middle of a heated primary season and asked him if he now regrets the move, given the former governor's victories.

MIKE DEWINE: Absolutely not. You know, I had endorsed Romney back in October, and I guess I bought into the conventional wisdom that he was, by far, the best candidate to win and beat Barack Obama in the fall. But, you know, there's a reason we have all these caucuses and primaries and debates. And as the campaign has played out, it has become very clear to me that he is not the strongest candidate. And I'll tell you why. As I travel around Ohio, there's just, you know, no enthusiasm for him at all. On the other hand, there's great enthusiasm for Rick Santorum.

LYDEN: Well, let me ask you about the town - of the energy. You've used words like catching fire to describe Rick Santorum in Ohio and issues like contraceptives, guns, religious issues, but it is about Ohio's economy. And you've been in the state forever, really. Do you think that Rick Santorum can connect to voters on economic issues? Mitt Romney called him a lightweight.

DEWINE: Well, no. I really think he can connect and is connecting on economic issues. When he came in to Toledo area coming out of the Michigan primary, the first thing he talked about was job creation. He talked about his energy plan. He talked about manufacturing. All these are very, very important issues in the state of Ohio.

My experience would tell me - and what I'm seeing - is that Rick will run in the fall very well with people we used to call the Reagan Democrats. These are people who, historically, have voted for - in the Democratic primary, they voted for a Democrat. But occasionally, they will flip over and vote for a Republican. These are people who live along the Ohio River. These are in our Appalachian part of the state. But, really, they're found all over Ohio. Mitt Romney is just not appealing to these blue-collar workers.

LYDEN: Ohio certainly has in the past been considered a bellwether state. And I want to ask you, some of the rhetoric that we have seen Rick Santorum used and some of the issues he's embraced had been, frankly, polarizing and even incendiary. Do you think that that is going to limit him to a certain kind of conservatism?

DEWINE: Well, I guess I would disagree. I think when - the more people see Rick and the more they listen to him and the more they get the nuances of what he is saying, instead of just a, you know, a very, very quick sound bite, the more they like him.

And if you look at the issues that I'm sure you're referencing, Rick Santorum has never said that he thought, you know, no one should be practicing birth control or that he was going to take birth control away from the people.

LYDEN: But why is that at the top of his - why would that be at the top of his campaign?

DEWINE: It's not. And quite candidly, I've listened to his speeches, and he talks a lot about manufacturing. He talks a lot about energy. It's not reported as much as his comments about things that he has been very consistent about. He has core values. He's not saying anything that I think is particularly shocking.

LYDEN: When it comes to women in independence, how well do you think Rick Santorum is going to do? We've seen polls that show women leaning toward him and also women who won't vote for him because of some of the positions he's taken on values and birth control.

DEWINE: Well, I think anybody who's, you know, a single-issue voter, who is pro-choice, you know, probably he hasn't voted for a Republican for a number of years in a presidential election.

LYDEN: So what will it mean if Rick Santorum wins Ohio on Tuesday?

DEWINE: Oh, I think it's a big win. I mean, Ohio is a microcosm of the country. It's a reflection of the country. We have, you know, a lot of suburbs, but we've got - if you drive through Ohio, it's a lot of farmland. So we're really a microcosm of the country. We always are right in the center in the general election. And this time, we're right in the center in the primaries.

LYDEN: That's Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. His candidate, Rick Santorum, is running neck and neck with Mitt Romney in Ohio, according to recent polls, but NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea says that Mitt Romney has a built-in advantage in the state.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Rick Santorum perhaps early on didn't think he was going to be a contender in Ohio, and here he is. But his campaign did not get all the needed signatures. It's one of those nuts-and-bolts things that campaign organizations do. And in three congressional districts, he is not eligible for any of the delegates there. So he's already nine down, and there are scattered problems across the state as well. So that gives Romney a built-in advantage. Plus, a lot of these superdelegates - there are 15 of those here - those are also more likely to be in the Romney camp.

LYDEN: And, of course, as we always heard, Ohio is vitally important in the grand scheme of things, and what happens there on Tuesday plays a role in the general election.

GONYEA: Exactly. Everybody thinks Ohio and Michigan are very similar, unless you look at presidential elections. Michigan has gone Democratic every time since Bill Clinton was first elected. Ohio, the last time they didn't pick the winner was Richard Nixon. They went for Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy. Every time since then, Ohio has picked the winner, and that is why people pay so much attention. We could look at the last few elections, the last few close ones, and say they were in effect decided by Ohio voters.

LYDEN: NPR's Don Gonyea in Dayton, Ohio.

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