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Super Tuesday: For some Ohio voters, Santorum's populist touch resonates

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have striven to explain how each is distinguished from the other. Surveys taken ahead of Super Tuesday in Ohio show the two candidates are in a dead heat.

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A voter looks over her ballot to place her vote at a polling station in Steubenville, Ohio, March 6. Republicans are holding their 'Super Tuesday' presidential primary in 10 states.

Jim Young/Reuters

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Many voters in Ohio agree that there are only small differences between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. So as the GOP presidential candidates have crisscrossed the state in recent days, each has striven to explain what distinguishes him from the other.

A victory for either candidate in this state on Super Tuesday is expected to help him clinch the GOP nomination. Currently, Messrs. Romney and Santorum are in a dead heat in Ohio.

While Romney has sought to portray himself as a no-nonsense veteran of business and industry, Santorum has presented himself as a conservative, working-class populist who brings his faith onto the campaign stage.

On Monday evening in Cuyahoga Falls, a suburban community about 35 miles south of Cleveland, Santorum spoke to a crowd of about 250 at an arts center along the Cuyahoga River. He talked about his ties to the Ohio Rust Belt and framed many issues, including President Obama’s health-care legislation, as slights against personal liberty and examples of “big government overreach.”

“It magnifies and focuses all that is wrong with what this president is trying to do with this country: micromanage your economic life, impose his values on people of faith,” Santorum said.

Earlier on Monday, Romney conducted a town-hall meeting in the blue-collar, economically challenged city of Youngstown. He avoided topics like faith or cultural hot buttons like abortion and, when instead talking about the economy or health care, struck the defiant tone of a boardroom CEO.

“My experience came from actually living in the economy,” he said. “In business, if you’re not a fiscal conservative, if you don’t balance your budget, you’ll be out of business.”

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For his part, Santorum has played to the emotional heart of the tea party movement and of evangelical voters. In the 2010 midterm elections, Ohio elected several first-time tea party candidates. But if cultural touchstones resonated with state voters back then, it’s almost entirely the economy now.

“The state Republican Party is not highly ideological. It has become more so, but it’s certainly not an Oklahoma or a Deep South state, or even an Indiana,” says Paul Allen Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Mr. Beck points to last November when voters overwhelmingly repealed a bill that limited union rights and had been signed into law in the summer by Gov. John Kasich (R). The outcome compelled Governor Kasich to say it was “time to pause” on similar measures. Since then, bills that have stood out in other Republican state majorities, such as on “personhood” or immigration regulation, have not made Ohio’s legislative agenda.

Nevertheless, Santorum’s populist touch is something that will work in Ohio Tuesday, says Justin Vaughn, a political scientist at Cleveland State University.

“This is a very anxious moment when people feel vulnerable to major institutions, whether governments or corporations or banks. And [Santorum is] throwing out a lot of red meat and, in doing so, he’s doing a reasonable job of communicating that he understands their issues and is like them,” Professor Vaughn says. “Maybe he’s more conservative on cultural issues than the average Ohio voter, but he’s still pretty similar to them.”

Indeed, many at the Santorum rally late Monday said they simply felt that Santorum aligned more with their interests and appeared more trustworthy.

“They all have the same goal: to get Obama out. I just think [Santorum] will do the right thing and follow through with what he promises,” says Dana Tomkovicz of Cleveland, who traveled to the rally with her husband and children.

For Karen Lemke, Tuesday will be the first time she votes Republican. A mail carrier from Cuyahoga Falls, she says she no longer has any confidence in the economy and says Santorum “is so believable.”

“He is someone who I know what I’m getting,” Ms. Lemke says.

Tiffany Wheatley, a lifelong Democrat from nearby Akron, says she voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 because of the historic importance of electing America’s first black president. “I felt strongly about that,” say Ms. Wheatley, who is black.

Yet her loyalty ended early in Obama’s term when it became evident he would not put further restrictions on abortion. For her, Obama’s actions “go over and beyond Christian values.”

She is giving Santorum her vote, mainly because he is most in opposition to Obama on social issues among the Republican contenders.

“I vote for candidates who uphold God,” she says. “This is a Christian country.”

Super Tuesday 101: Who’s ahead where

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