Romney, Santorum lock horns ahead of Super Tuesday

March 5, 2012 7:25 am
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Mitt Romney is campaigning in Georgia and Tennessee ahead of Super Tuesday/AFP
WASHINGTON, Mar 5 – Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney and main challenger Rick Santorum head into Super Tuesday’s voting bonanza eyeing one or two key states that could tilt the race in their favor.

Voters in 10 states across America will have their say on Tuesday in a potentially pivotal day in the see-saw contest to see who will take on President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 general election.

Ohio, a working class swing state in the so-called Rust Belt that is crucial to Obama’s re-election chances, is considered the big prize. Polls show Romney and Santorum locked together there in a statistical tie.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, looking to reset his faltering bid, has pulled ahead in his home state of Georgia, while a new Rasmussen poll showed Romney closing on Santorum, a staunch Christian conservative, in Tennessee.

With 437 delegates up for grabs — nearly 40 percent of the total needed to secure the nomination — Romney and Santorum have been criss-crossing the country to stake their claims.

“This is a game of survival and we are doing as well as anybody in all of these races where we are either first or second in most of the states,” Santorum told reporters on the campaign trail in Memphis, Tennessee.

Romney got a double boost going into Super Tuesday with a win on Saturday in the Washington state caucuses — albeit a non-binding vote — and an endorsement from top Republican lawmaker Eric Cantor.

Super Tuesday essentially ended the Republican nomination battle in 2008, when Romney capitulated and Senator John McCain went on to become the nominee.

Experts are not expecting such a clear outcome this time around.

Romney has pulled ahead in the early delegate count but Santorum and even Gingrich loom in the wings as potential upsets.

Romney has won eight states, including the last five in a row. Santorum has won three — four including what amounted to a beauty contest in Missouri. Gingrich has won just South Carolina, while Texas congressman Ron Paul has no victories.

Romney’s bulging war chest means he can outmuscle his rivals, but his opponents see hope in his inability to connect with core Republicans, who doubt his conservative credentials.

“He is a long way from having closed out this race,” Gingrich told ABC’s “This Week” program Sunday.

Delegates are awarded by each state in the complex Republican party nominating process, sometimes on a proportional and/or non-binding basis, until one candidate reaches the 1,144 delegate threshold required for victory.

If the race continues to be tight it is possible that no winner will emerge before the Republican convention at the end of August, in which case a victor may have to be decided by backroom brokering.

Cantor’s endorsement was seen as the strongest sign yet that the Republican establishment wants Romney to seal the deal quickly, avoiding a long and bitter fight that would help Obama.

Santorum has to recover from missteps in February, when his comments about birth control and separation of church and state led mainstream Republicans to question whether he was too far to the right for general election voters.

But Romney has suffered from repeated gaffes of his own, largely ones related to his wealth that risk making him appear out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University, said Romney’s tin ear could end up costing him in crucial states.

“Romney does have a Rust Belt problem. He has a hard time showing empathy. It looks like he doesn’t understand the needs of the working class,” she told AFP.

One important factor is what Gingrich, who has been vying with Santorum to be the authentic conservative alternative to Romney, does if he has a disappointing Super Tuesday.

“If all (Gingrich) does is win Georgia, and then finishes a lousy third every place else… at what point does he get out?” said veteran strategist Neil Oxman, co-founder of The Campaign Group.

This was certainly on Santorum’s mind as he campaigned in Tennessee.

“For us to ultimately win, this race is going to have to narrow down to two. And I think it is going to happen eventually,” he said.

Romney stepped up his offensive Sunday against Obama, saying that Iran would obtain nuclear weapons if the Democrat is wins a second term.

“It’s pretty straightforward in my view. If Barack Obama is re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon and the world will change if that’s the case,” said Romney in Georgia.

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