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Romney Seeks Breakout Super Tuesday to Thwart Santorum Challenge

March 6 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney is reaching for breakout primary victories today to propel him to a commanding lead in the Republican presidential race, as Rick Santorum presses for enough Super Tuesday support to keep his bid alive and stoke doubts about the front-runner. Megan Hughes and Peter Cook report on Bloomberg Television's "In the Loop." (Source: Bloomberg)

Mitt Romney is reaching for breakout victories today to propel him to a commanding lead in the Republican presidential race, as Rick Santorum presses for enough Super Tuesday support to keep his bid alive and stoke doubts about the front-runner.

Polls showed Romney ahead of his competitors among Republican voters nationally, gaining momentum in the swing state of Ohio -- one of today’s most coveted prizes with voting under way -- and running competitively in Tennessee, a Super Tuesday state the Santorum camp has focused on.

“If he wins most of the states, he’ll be the presumptive nominee; he’s close to that right now,” Bob Bennett, a former Ohio Republican chairman who represents the state on the party’s national committee, said of Romney. “He’ll be able to start down the path of the presumptive nominee and sew it up in April.”

Both men braced for a possible mixed result that could further muddle the contest as voters in 11 states weighed in. With more than 400 of the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination at stake, Santorum unleashed fresh attacks against Romney yesterday, saying he can’t be trusted on key Republican principles. Romney cast himself as the only candidate capable of beating President Barack Obama and improving the economy.

Obama was asked at a White House news conference today what he would like to say to Romney about criticism the candidate has aimed at his handling of the presidency. Obama said with a smile: “Good luck tonight.”

Jobs Message

“What you have with Romney is someone who is simply not a genuine article,” Santorum told reporters in a conference call, echoing a message he has been making to voters. “He’s not someone that you can trust on the issue of big government.”

Romney, 64, made a jobs-centered pitch as he toured Ohio by bus, voicing growing confidence in his chances based in part on a refusal to veer off his spotlight on the economy and Obama.

“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,” the former Massachusetts governor told voters at a guardrail manufacturing company in Canton, Ohio.

Santorum, 53, questioned Romney’s singular focus on fiscal issues. “This country is more than just the economy,” the former Pennsylvania senator said at a Christian school in Miamisburg, Ohio. “I’m someone who has gone out and delivered that message against all the odds.”

Photographer: Eric Gay/AP

Rick Santorum at a a campaign rally on March 3, 2012, in Blue Ash, Ohio. Close

Rick Santorum at a a campaign rally on March 3, 2012, in Blue Ash, Ohio.

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Photographer: Eric Gay/AP

Rick Santorum at a a campaign rally on March 3, 2012, in Blue Ash, Ohio.

Pro-Israel Group

Santorum, Romney and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich took time today to criticize Obama on Iran, telling a pro-Israel group in Washington they would be more forceful in stopping the government in Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. Obama, addresssing reporters at his news conference today, suggested that campaign criticism of his handling of Iran is political “bluster” and said he is intent on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Santorum, addressing the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said Obama has “been reticent” in his efforts. “He says he has Israel’s back,” said Santorum. “From everything I’ve seen, he has turned his back on the people of Israel.”

Romney said he would “bring the current policy of procrastination to an end.” He spoke by satellite, as did Gingrich, who told the group that in his administration, “we would not keep talking while the Iranians keep building.”

The stakes for Romney and Santorum are as high in Ohio as any other state voting today. A win for Romney would quiet concerns about his ability to carry a state regarded as a battleground in the general election, while a loss would underscore worries about his appeal to working-class and religiously conservative voters.

‘Start Organizing’

In Youngstown, Romney said that if he got sufficient support from people in Ohio and other states, “I can get the nomination, and then we can start organizing our effort to make sure that we replace President Obama.”

For Santorum, an Ohio victory would give his candidacy momentum it lost after Romney beat him in Feb. 28 primaries in Michigan and Arizona. A defeat in Ohio -- where he had led in polls until recent days -- would undercut his argument that his standing with factory workers and social conservatives can propel him to the nomination.

A Quinnipiac University poll yesterday showed Romney leading Santorum in Ohio, 34 percent to 31 percent. Gingrich had 15 percent and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas 12 percent. The telephone poll questioned 753 likely Republican primary voters was conducted March 2-4 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. Last week, a Quinnipiac poll gave Santorum the lead over Romney, 36 percent to 29 percent.

CNN/ORC Poll

In a CNN/ORC poll also released yesterday and conducted March 1-4, Romney and Santorum each had 32 percent, followed by Gingrich with 14 percent and Paul with 11 percent. The telephone survey of 546 likely voters in Ohio’s primary has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

“The campaign really has heated up” in Ohio, said John C. Green, a University of Akron political scientist. “Whoever wins the popular vote, even if it’s by a smidgen, is going to be able to take some bragging rights out of Ohio, which is a very important state in the presidential election, particularly for Republicans.”

No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.

The candidates also were battling in the South, where Gingrich pressed for a win in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress.

A CNN/ORC poll of 527 likely voters in Georgia’s primary showed Gingrich with 47 percent, followed by Romney with 24 percent, Santorum with 15 percent and Paul with 9 percent. As in Ohio, the March 1-4 survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Tennessee a Battleground

Tennessee also emerged in new polls as one of the day’s battlegrounds. An American Research Group poll released March 4 showed Santorum with a 4-point advantage over Romney. In mid- February, Santorum led by 18 points in a poll by the Tennessean newspaper and Nashville, Tennessee-based Vanderbilt University.

Nationally, support from conservatives gave Romney the lead in the race in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released yesterday. Romney was supported by 38 percent of those surveyed and Santorum by 32 percent; Gingrich and Paul were tied at 13 percent. The telephone poll was conducted Feb. 29-March 3 among 400 Republican primary voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

New Romney Backers

As the candidates made their closing arguments, influential Republicans swung behind Romney in what his campaign called a sign that the party is increasingly eager to coalesce behind him and concentrate on challenging Obama. Former U.S. Attorney General and Missouri Governor John Ashcroft offered his support yesterday, a day after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn endorsed Romney.

While Romney’s campaign wouldn’t predict a win in Ohio or any state today -- and conceded that he expects to lose in Georgia, where Gingrich is favored -- a top adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, said his candidate will win the majority of delegates at stake.

“We’re looking forward to a good day,” he said yesterday. “The party has already begun to coalesce behind Mitt Romney, and we expect that we’ll pick up more endorsements after Tuesday.”

Other Votes

Primaries are also being held in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Vermont and Virginia, a state where only Romney and Paul are on the ballot. Caucuses occur in Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota. Wyoming begins its delegate-selection process at county conventions that start today, with some results reported, and end on March 10.

Paul is making a push in Idaho, campaigning there yesterday and today.

In Ohio, Romney’s fundraising advantage was evident. Ad spending by Romney’s campaign and a political action committee backing him outpaced expenditures on behalf of Santorum in Ohio by about 10-1, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, an advertising tracking company.

The Romney campaign and Restore Our Future, a super-PAC that supports him, spent $1.8 million to air ads 3,713 times on Ohio broadcast television through March 1, CMAG reported. The Red White and Blue Fund, a super-PAC backing Santorum, had spent $181,250 to air ads 371 times.

To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Zanesville, Ohio at jdavis159@bloomberg.net; Lisa Lerer in Richfield, Ohio at llerer@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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