By PHILIP ELLIOTT and STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
WILLOUGHBY, Ohio (AP) — This state's Super Tuesday primary is proving to be the perfect microcosm of the nation's unruly race for the Republican presidential nomination: Mitt Romney is spending lots of money, Rick Santorum is aggressively courting conservatives and Newt Gingrich is counting on big ideas to swing votes his way.
Of the 10 states weighing in on Tuesday, Ohio offers the hottest contest. And with its diverse population, reputation as a presidential battleground and preoccupation with the same economic worries that nag the nation at large, Ohio seems destined to foreshadow the shape of the campaign as it heads toward November.
"You seem to always be the center of the political universe in America," Santorum declared Friday night during a packed campaign stop in this northeastern Ohio town set along Lake Erie.
And despite the vast territory in play across the country, from Alaska and Idaho to Vermont, Virginia and Georgia, Romney will sleep in Ohio every night until Tuesday. It's that important to him.
Even so, the race was playing out in similar fashion in the other states with contests Tuesday. The former Massachusetts governor and his allies were flooding the airwaves, outpacing his rivals in every Super Tuesday state except in North Dakota, where Santorum was alone on the air but spending less than $8,000. Romney campaigned in Washington on Friday, the day before the state's caucuses, as he closed a Western swing.
Romney has much of Ohio's Republican establishment behind him after years of courting the party's county chairmen and donors.
"When a party chairman gets a call early on from someone perceived as the front-runner and they ask you to sign on as a county chairman, it's easy to say yes and it's hard to say no," said Mark Munroe, the Mahoning County GOP chief who is leading Romney's efforts in the northeastern Ohio county. "We've seen the Romney campaign in action since late last year. He was able to start early and that makes such a huge difference."
Romney's camp insists he does not need to win Ohio to get the presidential nomination or even to keep alive the expectation that he eventually will. Losing here, however, would drive persistent doubts about the strength of Romney's candidacy after a closer-than-expected race in Michigan and a string of comments that have drawn attention to his personal wealth.
Campaigning Friday night in Cleveland, Romney delivered his standard speech and kept his focus on the economy, though he cited trade — a critical issue in a manufacturing state that's been hurt by foreign competition
"When we have trade with other nations it's good for us ... we do better as a society. We're able to have more stuff and have a more prosperous life," he said. "But that's only the case as long as the people we trade with don't cheat. And in the case of China, they're cheating." The crowd cheered, with many nodding their heads.
Romney, who's visited Ohio, North Dakota, Idaho and Washington state in the past two days, also said the campaigning allows him to meet people who aren't regularly in the news. "When you get to do what I do and you meet, you know, average, ordinary citizens like ourselves, well, you get a sense of what is really at the heart and at the core of the American people," he said.
Figures provided to The Associated Press show Romney's campaign is spending more than $1.5 million in television ads this week in Ohio and his allies are on the air with almost $1.5 million. In total, Romney and his supporters planned to spend more than $3.8 million on cable and broadcast television ads.
His rivals dismiss the spending.
"The Romney organization is nothing more than money," said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, an early Romney backer who defected to Santorum just as the former Pennsylvania senator's late rise captured the interest of conservative leaders who were lukewarm, at best, about Romney's record.
Santorum and his allies are spending only $796,000 in total on Ohio. Yet a Quinnipiac University poll released Friday found Santorum polling at 35 percent support and Romney at 31 percent support — essentially a tie.
"When Ohio whispers, people listen," Santorum said Friday night. "When Ohio shouts, 'We want a conservative,' this country will stand up and join you."