It may feel as though the GOP presidential race has been going on forever, but it's only just getting started. With Arizona and Michigan now in the rearview mirror, all eyes are on the 10 so-called "Super Tuesday" states where voters make their Republican selections March 6.
The list includes southern states like Georgia and Tennessee where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich hopes to revive his chances; quirky caucus states like Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota where Texas Rep. Ron Paul would like to notch his first win; and a trio of states that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hopes to wrap up without much effort—Massachusetts and Vermont and Virginia, where only he and Paul will appear on the ballot.
Oklahoma voters are also set to vote, but many election observers say the true battleground for Romney and his chief rival former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is in Ohio. The Ohio Poll released Tuesday by the University of Cinncinnati showed Santorum with an 11 point lead over Romney, garnering 37 percent of Republican voters, with 16 percent support for Gingrich and 11 percent for Paul. Another survey showed Santorum with a six point lead over Romney. But as in previous primary states, experts say no lead a week out is safe in this remarkably fluid contest.
"Who's going to spend more time in Ohio and how much is Santorum going to concentrate in Ohio or how much is he going to compete with Gingrich in the south?" wonders John Elliott, political science professor at Kenyon College. He says Romney, the best financed candidate in the race, has already begun airing television advertisements in the Buckeye State.
Elliott points out that the GOP dynamic in Ohio is similar to that in Michigan, where Romney's strengths lie near the metropolitan areas and Santorum's with the more rural parts of the state with social conservative and evangelical voters.
"The rural areas of Ohio are overwhelmingly Republican but wow, they are not rich, they are not well-educated so you're going to see a potential for that kind of parallel," he says. "Cincinnati has always had sort of a reputation for Catholic social conservatism but in the countryside it's more general social conservatism."
But Elliott offers that the economy, in Ohio as in the rest of the country, is tops for voters and he acknowledges a schism between how Romney and Santorum have addressed that topic so far.
"For Romney, it's his business background and it's the economy in a sense writ-large. He can revive the economy for everyone, in a sense, based on his experience and being tough on the budget," Elliott says. "Santorum pays less attention to the budgetary issues and more of an emphasis on appealing to blue-collar workers, non-college graduates and with a real emphasis on reviving industry."
Danny Hayes, political science professor at American University, cautions that Santorum may not fare well taking on Romney when it comes to the economy.
"If I'm Santorum, maybe I'm a bit dubious about getting into an economic fight with Romney in Ohio," he says. "If voters' attention is focused on which of these candidates is better at dealing with economic issues, I think Romney has an advantage and polls seem to show that."
Taylor Griffin, a former advisor on John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, agrees that the popularity of Santorum and Romney see-saws based on the topic du jour.
"If the primary campaign is fought on the ground of social issues, it's going to be much more difficult for Romney, even if he's trying to defend himself, than if he sticks to the economy and tries to draw his opponents into the economic issues," he says. "To try to take on a Rick Santorum on Republican-based social issues is just not going to work; it's going to be inauthentic."
And another factor in the ongoing nomination battle is what comes out of the candidates' mouths. Both Santorum and Romney have had their share of uncomfortable remarks in the days leading up to the most recent contests.