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In Ohio, second-place Santorum shows staying power

by
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum smiles while speaking to the crowd at a campaign rally at the Washington State History Museu
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum smiles while speaking to the crowd at a campaign rally at the Washington State History Museu

By Steve Holland and Samuel P. Jacobs

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With victories in the Bible Belt and the Great Plains on "Super Tuesday," Rick Santorum continues to bedevil Mitt Romney.

Santorum's ability to attract blue-collar and evangelical conservatives was evident again on Tuesday - and led the former senator from Pennsylvania to within a whisker of Romney in Ohio, the most coveted prize among 10 state contests for Republican presidential candidates.

Santorum and Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, are battling for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the general election on November 6.

Santorum secured victories in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota on Tuesday, while Romney notched wins in Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts, Idaho and the key state of Ohio.

In the final days before Super Tuesday, Santorum said the contest against Romney was a battle of David versus Goliath. In the spending contest, that claim was true: Santorum and his allies were outspent by Romney and his supporters by more than 4 to 1 in Ohio.

At a campaign rally in Steubenville on Tuesday evening, Santorum struck a populist tone, describing his candidacy as devoted to Americans who have fallen on hard times.

"This campaign is about the towns that have been left behind and the families who made those towns the greatest towns across this county," Santorum told the crowd gathered in a high school gymnasium not far from his Pennsylvania home.

Those hit hardest by the down economy appeared to have sided with Santorum over Romney in Ohio.

In CNN's exit polls, Ohio voters without college degrees and earning less than $100,000 voted for Santorum over Romney. Voters earning more than $100,000 and college-educated voters cast more ballots for Romney than Santorum.

On Tuesday evening, Santorum forecasted stormy days ahead for Americans should Obama remain in office.

"This is the beginning of the end of freedom in America," Santorum said.

Since defeating Santorum in the neighboring Rust Belt state of Michigan, Romney, a former private equity executive, has pressed the notion that Santorum is unqualified to be president on economic issues.

"ECONOMIC LIGHTWEIGHT"

"Rick Santorum is a nice guy but he is an economic lightweight," Romney said during a town hall in suburban Columbus last week.

That argument resonated in Ohio, where more than half of voters said the economy was the most important issue in the campaign. Forty-one percent of those voters supported Romney. Thirty-three percent of voters focused on the economy said they support Santorum.

A major test for Romney, a one-time leader in the Mormon Church, has been his ability to appeal to voters who identify themselves as evangelical or born-again Christian. Santorum, a devout Catholic who has made his faith and religious freedom central to his campaign, continues to win over those supporters.

Santorum's appeal to his religion has led the candidate to court controversy. His statement that the views of President John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, on the role of religion in the public sphere made him want to "throw up" cost him support among fellow Catholics.

Still voters choosing their candidate on social issues are lining up behind Santorum.

Ohio voters who said that abortion was the most important issue in the campaign voted for Santorum over Romney 3 to 1, according to CNN's exit polls.

Thirty-one percent of Ohio voters identified themselves as very conservative. Forty-eight percent of those voters said they cast their ballots for Santorum, while 29 percent of those voters picked Romney.

In Ohio, where Santorum topped Romney 47 percent to 31 percent among self-identified evangelicals in exit polls, voters said they backed Santorum because he shared their views.

"Santorum's values are more like mine - more conservative," said Katherine Frencz, 36, who is from Hilliard, a suburb of Columbus, the state capital. "I see Romney as more liberal and not sincere in his beliefs. He doesn't really know what he stands for."

"I want someone like Santorum in the White House who has the moral clarity to make the right decision," said Lonnie Vestal, 36, a conservative pastor and teacher from Mason, Ohio.

Santorum will visit Kansas on Wednesday before heading south to Mississippi and Alabama which hold primaries next week.

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