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CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — With polls showing what has become a two-man race for Ohio tightening considerably going into Super Tuesday, GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum argued Friday he's the only "clear conscience" who can beat President Obama in November.
"We don't need a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We need a clear choice," he told a crowd of several hundred in Chillicothe High School's gym about45 miles south of Columbus.
He said he would vote for any of the other Republican candidates over Mr. Obama anytime.
But he again argued that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's championing of a health-care law in his state that Mr. Obama later used as a model for his own controversial reforms means Republicans would be forced to surrender the high ground on a signature issue in the campaign.
"I've been conservative across the board," Mr. Santorum said. "And, of course, according to the media, I can't win. I make the argument that a conservative across the board at a time when the country is at peril and we're losing our foundational freedoms is the only one who can win."
The latest Quinnipiac poll of likely Republican primary voters released Friday showed the fight for Ohio too close to call. Mr. Santorum's lead of seven points in a similar poll Monday had been narrowed to four, within the poll's margin of error. Mr. Santorum leads Mr. Romney 35 to 31 percent.
A separate Rasmussen poll gave Mr. Santorum an even tighter 33 percent to 31 percent lead over Mr. Romney. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul trail in both polls.
"Romney is closing the gap because his campaign is focusing on Ohio," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "He won in Michigan. Obviously, Michigan's going to matter. It's had an effect."
Mr. Santorum on Friday used what he called "Obamacare" as an example of a president creating a government-dependent electorate, acting more like a "sovereign" than a traditional U.S. president.
"When a president of the United States says, 'I'm giving you a right,' be careful, be very careful, because rights don't come from presidents …," Mr. Santorum said. "Any right a president can give you, he can threaten to take away …'If you don't do what I tell you to do, I'm going to stick it to you.' "
It was also clear that Mr. Santorum has not entirely left last Tuesday's primary in Michigan behind, mistakenly saying at one point he won the majority of votes in Mr. Romney's native state.
"They were so embarrassed that they changed the rules after the fact to say we are going to apportion state delegates and give an extra delegate to Romney …," he said. "My feeling on that is, conservatives, Americans play by the rules. They don't change the rules after the fact."
Mr. Romney narrowly eked out a popular-vote win, but initially it appeared that the two candidates would evenly split the state's 30 delegates, 28 of which were tied to congressional district wins. A reinterpretation of party rules two days later gave Mr. Romney one of two at-large delegates, handing him a 16-14 majority.
Mr. Santorum's campaign Friday asked the Republican National Committee to investigate.
"Senator Santorum should check the results," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said. "He lost the popular vote in Michigan. The Michigan Republican Party has been very clear there was a decision about delegate allocation that was made several weeks before the primary. The campaigns were aware of this.
"Senator Santorum is just bitter and flailing since his defeat in Michigan and his overwhelming defeat in Arizona," he said. "He's simply sour."
Teresa Franklin of Chillicothe is not a typical Santorum supporter. A Democrat, she voted for Mr. Obama four years ago.
"I'm just unhappy with a lot of the things that have just not happened, things that [Mr. Obama] said he would follow through with," she said. " I think Rick Santorum is the right person who can take over and do a little bit more for the economy."
But when asked if she would vote for Mr. Romney in November should he win the nomination, Ms. Franklin shakes her head. She said she doesn't think that Mr. Romney can relate to middle-class America.
"I don't care for him," she said. "I think Santorum relates to the common people. Romney is more on the corporate level."
At one point, Mr. Santorum on Friday seemed to pick up on this theme, telling the crowd he does his own taxes.
The candidates' courting of Ohio, the second-biggest delegate prize on Super Tuesday after Georgia, will continue into the weekend. Mr. Romney plans stops in Wilmington, Dayton, and Cincinnati while Mr. Santorum plans to visit the Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash, as well as Wilmington, Lima, and Bowling Green.
Mr. Gingrich will use a tour through western Ohio in an attempt to dispel the suggestion that this has become a two-man race. He will take a break from his emphasis on his home state of Georgia to visit Bowling Green, Findlay, Wilmington, and Hamilton.
There's been no sign of Texas Congressman Ron Paul in Ohio, who has been largely pinning his Super Tuesday hopes on northern caucus states such as North Dakota.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.