ZANESVILLE, Ohio — As the race for the presidential nomination goes down to the wire for Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum made their final sales pitches for the votes of Ohio Republicans on Monday.
They crisscrossed the state to frame the choice one last time — Mr. Romney, the self-described businessman needed to tackle the nation’s economic woes and debt, or Mr. Santorum, the self-painted true conservative necessary to reset the nation’s economic, constitutional, and moral compass.
And each presented himself as the only Republican who could beat President Obama in November.
The latest Quinnipiac Poll showed Mr. Santorum’s seven-point lead a week ago has evaporated, much as it did in the final days in Michigan. Thirty-four percent of likely GOP voters said they will support Mr. Romney on Super Tuesday, compared with 31 percent supporting Mr. Santorum, a statistical tie.
Other polls had Mr. Santorum barely ahead but still too close to call.
Mr. Santorum said that over the last month in Ohio, he’s been outspent 12 to 1 by Mr. Romney and the super-PAC that supports him. He said he’s counting on a strong conservative vote to compensate for the monetary inequity.
“To suggest this is David and Goliath is a little bit of an understatement,” he told reporters in a conference call. “We’re out here fighting on principle.”
It’s the same message he delivered to registered Republicans via automated calls over the weekend. Mr. Romney’s calls targeted President Obama and focused on the economy and his own business acumen.
During a brief appearance in southwest Ohio’s Zanesville, Mr. Romney never mentioned his Republican opponents and instead focused entirely on Mr. Obama.
“This is an election about the soul of America,” he told a small crowd gathered in Brian’s Place, a downtown restaurant and meeting site.
“I think our President wants to turn us into something that is European,” Mr. Romney said. “I don’t think Europe is working in Europe.”
Also holding primaries or caucuses on Tuesday are Virginia, Mr. Romney’s own Massachusetts, Vermont, Tennessee, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Idaho, and Alaska. More than 400 delegates are at stake.
From Youngstown to Canton to Zanesville, Mr. Romney vowed to repeal regulations enacted under Mr. Obama that he said stifle business and infringe on individual freedoms. “First on my list is Obamacare,” he said. “I’m going to get rid of that.”
But in rallies in the suburbs of Dayton, Akron, and Columbus, Mr. Santorum repeatedly hit Mr. Romney for his passage of a Massachusetts health-care law that served as a model for Mr. Obama’s national law. By nominating Mr. Romney, the former Pennsylvania senator said Republicans would surrender “Obama-care” as a campaign issue come November.
He accused Mr. Romney of being dishonest with voters in saying he opposes the federal law, pointing to a 2009 interview in which the former governor voiced support for an insurance-coverage mandate.
“Conservatives will not trust him,” Mr. Santorum told reporters. “They will not rally around him.”
The Romney campaign shot back, saying the former governor has been consistent in supporting states going their own way on health care instead of a federal law.
Although Mr. Santorum hopes to do well in Oklahoma and Tennessee, he has yet to win a delegate-rich state such as Ohio to prove he can go toe-to-toe with Mr. Romney for the 1,144 delegates needed to capture the nomination.
Even if he should win Ohio’s popular vote, he starts out as many as 18 delegates behind in the count. The first 48 delegates of the 63 tied to Tuesday’s election results in Ohio will be awarded at the rate of three for each congressional district that candidates win.
In its early cash-strapped days, Mr. Santorum’s campaign failed to field a slate of delegates in three of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts, including the 9th District, stretching along Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland. That’s nine potential delegates sacrificed.
But he dug the hole even deeper by failing to field a full slate of three delegates in several other districts. The Ohio Republican Party’s State Committee will decide disputes over any unallocated delegates after the votes are counted. The remaining 15 at-large delegates will be apportioned by the popular vote for each candidate surpassing the 20 percent threshold.
Mr. Santorum plans to hold his election night party in Steubenville, Ohio, placing him close to his Pittsburgh area home but also in the 6th District, where he will walk away with zero delegates. Mr. Romney, meanwhile, spent the night in Ohio but will return to his adopted home state of Massachusetts to vote and follow the Super Tuesday returns.
For all intents and purposes, Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich ceded Virginia to Mr. Romney by failing to qualify for the ballot there. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Mr. Romney’s only competition in Virginia, has ignored Ohio, concentrating on northern caucus states.
Monday’s Quinnipiac Poll had Mr. Gingrich with 15 percent of the Ohio vote and Mr. Paul with 12 percent.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 614-221-0496.