DAYTON, Ohio—Some of the band members at Dayton Christian School wear shirts that read, "Keep calm and play on." Maybe that should be Rick Santorum's new campaign slogan.
As in Michigan and a few other states, Santorum once held a sizeable lead over his Republican rivals for president in the Buckeye State. But as the Ohio primary draws nigh—one of the 10 Super Tuesday contests to be held on March 6—Santorum is once again becoming the Great Shrinking Candidate.
A week ago, various polls showed that the former Pennsylvania senator led Mitt Romney by more than 10 percentage points in Ohio. But now, as voters prepare to cast their ballots, the two candidates are essentially tied, with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul trailing far behind. For all of Santorum's brashness and brimstone, he now risks a reputation as the candidate who can't close the deal.
Santorum, naturally, is trying to spin his electoral disadvantages into an asset. In a rally in the auditorium at Dayton Christian, Santorum told a polite crowd—many of them wide-eyed students—that "I'm a candidate who shouldn't be here. I've been outspent in every state I've run in." By Santorum's account, Romney has outspent him 6 to 1. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who introduced Santorum, pegged Romney's money advantage at 8 or 9 to 1. "I ask the people of Ohio," Santorum urged, "to think not just about how much money [the candidates] have, but where's their soul, where's their conviction, how much fight do they have."
Perhaps out of deference to the grade-schoolers in the audience, Santorum glossed over some of the social and moral issues that have been a staple of other stump speeches. He made an oblique reference to the recent flap over contraception, for example, and once mentioned "the dignity of life." But he drew more applause when he described himself as "growing up in a steelworker town, having to fight for everything you got. You've got to earn it."
The scrappy underdog theme may be the best pitch Santorum can make in a state where GOP voters seem generally disillusioned with all the candidates. "Santorum has proved that if you work hard you can make something of yourself," said Pam Tipton, a 50-something Republican at the rally who has been to a few Tea Party events and would have voted for Texas Gov. Rick Perry if he were still running. "I love his ideals and everything he stands for." Her main priority, she says, is simply getting President Obama out of office.
Yet Santorum is sinking for good reason. By failing to complete registration procedures in several voting districts, Santorum has forfeited more than one-quarter of the 66 delegates up for grabs in Ohio—even if he wins in a landslide. The Romney campaign cites that as sloppy logistical work that would leave Santorum vulnerable to a well-oiled Obama campaign, if Santorum were the GOP nominee in the fall.
Romney's cash advantage is also fueling a last-minute advertising binge, including some SuperPac-funded negative ads portraying Santorum as a debate bumbler, flip-flopper and "just another Washington insider." Santorum is airing few ads, if any, in response.
Then there's the blasé appeal of the whole GOP field, which has left many Republicans unmotivated and could keep turnout low. One of the "special guests" sitting in the front row at Santorum's Dayton rally was Republican State Senator Peggy Lehner—even though she hasn't endorsed Santorum, or any Republican presidential candidate, and doesn't plan to until there's a nominee this fall. "I'm scratching my head along with many other Republicans," Lehner said. "I'm still trying to determine who has the best shot of knocking off Barack Obama." Even without her support, however, Santorum plans to play on.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, to be published in May. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman