COLUMBUS — Ohio is accustomed to being the presidential battleground for general elections, but Buckeye voters this year also have emerged as major players in the volatile fight for the Republican nomination.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are all trying to out-conservative one another ahead of Super Tuesday's primaries and caucuses in 10 states, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul continues to look for his first win.
March primary election: precinct, ballot information
More than 400 delegates are at stake Tuesday as candidates reach for the threshold of 1,144 delegates needed to avoid a brokered Republican National Convention in Tampa in August.
With his decisive victory in Arizona and much narrower popular-vote win in Michigan last week, the Associated Press had Mr. Romney leading in the delegate count with 168 compared to Mr. Santorum's 86, Mr. Gingrich's 32, and Mr. Paul's 19 going into Saturday's Washington caucus.
While Georgia holds the greater delegate prize of 76 on Tuesday, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said all eyes will again be on Ohio, which will have 63 of its 66 delegates up for grabs.
How Ohio awards GOP delegates
Ohio has 66 Republican delegates, 63 of whom will be distributed based on Tuesday's results.
Three delegates will be awarded for each congressional district win for a total of 48. Rick Santorum did not field a full state of delegates in some districts, including the 9th stretching along Lake Erie between Toledo and Cleveland, meaning as many as 18 of those delegates may be off-limits to him.
Fifteen delegates will be awarded proportionally to candidates based on how they perform statewide, as long as they earn at least 20 percent of the popular vote. All 15 will go to the candidate who surpasses the 50 percent mark.
Three Republican National Committee members — state GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine, predecessor Bob Bennett, and, former RNC Co-Chairman Jo Ann Davidson — will award the last three delegates.
"Georgia is a state that Newt Gingrich is likely to win, and everybody knows that, whereas Ohio is an even, open contest and a great super-swing state, no question about it," Mr. Sabato said. "Ohio's been right 27 of the last 29 times, so you always pay attention to Ohio.
"This is a primary, but you do get some clues to voter reactions to various Republican candidates," he said. "If they fall flat in a primary, they will have a tougher time in a very close election in November. Ohio could be the election, as it was in 2004."
Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum dealt their own Super Tuesday campaigns serious blows by failing to qualify for the ballot in Virginia. Mr. Santorum also undermined himself in Ohio by failing to field a full state of delegates in congressional districts, including the 9th stretching along Lake Erie between Toledo and Cleveland.
That means as many as 18 of Ohio's 48 delegates to be awarded based on congressional district wins may be off-limits to him, although he still could benefit from votes cast in those districts when it comes to awarding 15 at-large delegates based on the statewide popular vote.
While the election is officially on Tuesday, Ohioans have been casting absentee ballots since Jan. 31. The window for early in-person voting closed Friday.
A series of polls have shown that the fight for Ohio has largely come down to Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney. Although he was back in Ohio Saturday, Mr. Gingrich appears to be making his stand in Georgia, the state that launched his political career.
Mr. Romney should win in Massachusetts, the state he now calls home and once served as governor. The Super Tuesday campaign trail also will reach Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Vermont, and the caucus states of North Dakota, Idaho, and Alaska.
"Santorum is guaranteed Oklahoma by a wide margin," Mr. Sabato said. "The question is, will Romney make a play for Tennessee?"
Mr. Sabato said Mr. Romney still needs a southern-state win.
"Virginia doesn't count anymore," he said. "He's unopposed for all practical purposes."
President Obama is uncontested on the Democratic ballot, continuing to fill a campaign war chest as the Republicans spend theirs attacking each other. In addition to the four candidates still standing, the GOP ballot in Ohio will include Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, both of whom have ended their campaigns.
"It is certainly true that there is a significant part of the Republican primary electorate that is uncomfortable with Mitt Romney," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
But it's also time for Mr. Santorum to come up with a big win if his campaign hopes are to remain alive.
"You don't get to be president of the United States by winning moral victories," he said. "Michigan was a moral victory. He finished second. This is now about delegates. We're counting numbers at this point. You've got to start winning at some point."
Part of the quick recovery for Mr. Romney in Florida was a result of a heavy blanketing of ads critical of Mr. Gingrich's personal life. Although Mr. Romney and the super political action committee backing his candidacy are now blanketing Ohio with TV ads going after Mr. Santorum, he doesn't see the same opening for Mr. Romney here in Ohio.
"Clearly, there are not the areas of opportunity for Romney in Santorum's personal background," Mr. Brown said. "There are some areas that Romney is going after policy-wise against Santorum, making arguments that he's really not a conservative — the union stuff especially, some of the spending stuff. Whether that's as effective as the ads against Gingrich's personal problems in Florida, we'll find out."
Mr. Romney has attempted to paint Mr. Santorum as a friend of labor, pointing to his 1996 "no" vote in the U.S. Senate against a national "right-to-work" bill that would have prohibited workplace unions from collecting fees from employees who refuse to join. A Quinnipiac Poll nearly three weeks ago showed that 54 percent of Ohioans support such a law here.
Mr. Santorum said he's agreed to sign a national right-to-work bill if elected.
The former Massachusetts governor has sought to present Mr. Santorum as a Washington insider who voted for budget earmarks for pet projects in Pennsylvania as spending and deficits ballooned. He's also portrayed him as disloyal for urging Democrats to cross over to vote for him over Mr. Romney in the Michigan primary, something that is also an option in Ohio to a lesser extent.
"I've demonstrated my conservative skills and how I took business skills and applied them in a governmental setting," Mr. Romney said last week at Capital University near Columbus. "That's the reason I've been successful in this last campaign. When the media asked people coming out of the polls [on Tuesday] why they voted for me, those people who cared about the economy and jobs voted for me."
Polls released last week by Quinnipiac and Rasmussen both had Mr. Santorum with leads in Ohio, but those leads have shrunk significantly in recent days.
Mr. Santorum has tried to make the case that the former governor is the wrong candidate for Republicans to send up against Mr. Obama in November. In particular, he has pointed to the Massachusetts health-care program championed by Mr. Romney.
Both candidates have vowed to kill what they call "Obamacare." The federal law, which will require all Americans to acquire health insurance by 2014, has become a rallying cry for the Tea Party movement. Both GOP presidential contenders have tried to tap into that, even through Mr. Obama has cited Mr. Romney's own Massachusetts program as at least partial inspiration for his own.
"[People] don't just want what Washington and the old-boy network is going to give us again," Mr. Santorum said Friday in Chillicothe. "They don't want just another moderate Republican who they all say can win, but we know that when we put forth a moderate Republican, we don't win."
Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum have both campaigned heavily in Ohio in recent days, wasting little time getting here in the wake of the Michigan campaign. Mr. Gingrich arrived Saturday.
There's still been no sign of Mr. Paul.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.