CANTON, Ohio — Mitt Romney's allies are hoping Super Tuesday's powerful imprint on the Republican presidential nomination will bring clarity, at long last, to the fractious contest and rouse Republicans behind their front-runner. But that's strictly up to voters across the nation, weighing in on the most consequential day of the campaign to date.
Romney and his chief rival, Rick Santorum, scrambled for any advantage they could find Monday in Ohio, the most-watched contest in the 10-state extravaganza stretching from Alaska to the southeast.
Speaking to supporters at a guardrail factory in Canton, Ohio, Romney tried to snap the subject back to the economy and away from social conservative issues — this, after a furor erupted from radio host Rush Limbaugh's caustic comments about a college student who testified to Congress about contraception.
"I look at this campaign right now and I see a lot of folks all talking about lots of things, but what we need to talk about to defeat Barack Obama is getting good jobs and scaling back the size of government, and that's what I do," Romney said. "Other people in this race have debated about the economy, they've read about the economy, they've talked about it in subcommittee meetings. But I've actually been in it."
The latest polls found Santorum slipping in Ohio, putting him in a near dead heat with Romney, and Gingrich looking strong but not invincible in his home state of Georgia, which he needs to win to have any hope of resurrecting his candidacy. Ron Paul, trailing the delegate count and the expectations game, hoped one or more of the three caucus states, Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota, would finally give him a victory.
Fully one-third of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination are at stake Tuesday, altogether a larger prize than all the previous primaries and caucuses combined. President Barack Obama picked Tuesday for his first news conference of the year, a chance to steal a bit of thunder from the Republicans on their big day and defend a record of economic stewardship that is under daily assault in the GOP campaign.
On the eve of Super Tuesday, the message coming from Republican establishment figures was clear: It's time, if not past time, to crystallize the competition and unite the party behind the effort to defeat Obama in the fall.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, were among the latest GOP luminaries to swing behind Romney. Conservative John Ashcroft, attorney general in the George W. Bush administration and a former Missouri senator, threw his support behind Romney on Monday. "No other candidate stands out for his executive leadership experience or ability to accomplish difficult task as does Mitt Romney," he said.
Cantor told CNN "we're coalescing around Mitt Romney's plan to actually address the economic challenges," and "trying to find ways to work together and bring people together and set aside differences."
Whether Super Tuesday marks that sort of turning point remains to be seen. Romney has been the presumed long-haul favorite from the start but Santorum's surge unfolded as the latest in a line of surprises from a field now down to four candidates.
Gingrich, whose only victory was in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, has staked his campaign's future on winning Georgia, the state he represented in Congress for 20 years, and on building a stronghold in the conservative South.
Toward that end, Gingrich scheduled stops Monday in Tennessee, where he appears to be in a close race with Santorum and Romney. Gingrich also planned to visit Alabama on Tuesday for the state's March 13 primary before returning to Atlanta in the evening.
Santorum told The Associated Press on Sunday that Romney's inability to wrap up the nomination, despite an enormous financial advantage, "raises a lot of questions in people's minds whether this is the man who can unite the party and be effective as a foil against Obama."
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