BEXLEY, Ohio — At a suburban Columbus town hall, Mitt Romney Wednesday turned his attention to foreign policy, saying Ohio’s top priority has to be stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Responding to a question from the audience on the campus of Capital University, the Republican contender said an Iran armed with nuclear weaponry and material that could be accessed by terrorism organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas is the greatest modern threat to the United States.
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“…(I)f Iran, their sponsor, has nuclear material, at some point that nuclear material can find its way into the hands of those terror groups, and having at our border or potentially within our border people with fissile material, nuclear material, is unthinkable — that we could be held hostage or worse,” the former Massachusetts governor told a friendly crowd of about 300.
“It would be unacceptable for this nation to allow Iran to have nuclear weaponry and to have fissile material…,’’ he said. “This president’s failures in dealing with Iran are probably just as severe, if not more so, than his failures in dealing with the economy.”
He said President Obama could have done more to secure crippling sanctions against Iran by using the United States’ removal of missile defense sites from Eastern Europe to get a promise from Russia not to veto a United Nations resolution.
He also said concerns raised by the administration that Israel might launch an attack against Iran’s nuclear capability signals an unwillingness by the administration to do so itself.
“We, of course, don’t want to be involved in a military action,’’ Mr. Romney said. “At the same time they have to know that we are not going to allow them to become a nuclear nation and threaten the viability of America.’’
Mr. Romney took questions from the audience that largely touched on familiar territory — the economy, business taxation, and Mr. Obama’s federal health-care law that was at least partly patterned after Mr. Romney’s own state program in Massachusetts.
Mr. Romney has vowed to kill the law, but said Wednesday that he would preserve the law’s protections against insurance companies dropping coverage or refusing to cover people with pre-existing conditions.
A pair of polls released this week had Mr. Santorum leading in Ohio before the first votes in Michigan and Arizona had been cast. The University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Poll released Tuesday had the former Pennsylvania senator up by 11 points. The Connecticut-based Quinnipiac Poll had him up by 7 on Monday.
Ohio’s official election is next Tuesday, but voters have been casting absentee ballots since Jan. 31. The window to vote early in person will close at 6 p.m. Friday.
While Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney continued to fight for delegates in the aftermath of the Michigan vote, Mr. Romney’s campaign again took aim, this time with an Internet video, at Mr. Santorum for urging Democrats to meddle in Republican primaries.
Ohio Democrats could vote GOP ballots on Tuesday, but, unlike in Michigan, they would officially become registered Republicans in the process. Unless challenged by a precinct official, the voter would not have to sign a statement saying he agrees with the principles of the party whose ballot he is voting, according to Matt McClellan, spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.
While Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney wasted little time getting back to Ohio from Michigan, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Wednesday continued to concentrate on the biggest delegate prize of Super Tuesday, Georgia.
Mr. Santorum is expected to arrive back in Ohio late Thursday night in anticipation of an early Friday rally in Chillicothe. He will also headline a GOP dinner that night in Lake County. Mr. Romney is also expected back in Ohio by Friday, and all three are expected to be in Ohio on Saturday when Washington is holding its caucuses.
They will participate in a Fox News taping Saturday in Wilmington, and then Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich will head north for a GOP dinner at Bowling Green State University Saturday night.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul has yet to make an Ohio campaign appearance.