Ohio Is Do or Die for Rick Santorum on Super Tuesday

What the candidates have to do to survive.

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We won’t see a clean sweep on Super Tuesday. Candidates know they don’t have to win everywhere and that it’s not necessarily worth the time and money to try. But with more than 400 delegates at stake across 10 states on March 6, it is critical candidates win where they can.

[Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

Newt Gingrich must prevail in his native Georgia and elsewhere in the upper South, so he can talk resurgence. Texas Rep. Ron Paul not only must pile up delegates in the caucus states of Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota--where his tight-knit and enthusiastic organization provides advantages--he needs to finally win one outright.

Mitt Romney must lock down Virginia, where only he and Paul are on the ballot, as well as Massachusetts, where he served as governor, and Vermont. And Rick Santorum must close the deal in the ultraconservative states of Tennessee and Oklahoma, where he already enjoys big leads in the polls.

[See editorial cartoons about Mitt Romney.]

But there is one must-win--or close to it--on the docket: Ohio. It’s not so much about the state’s 66 delegates, although winning delegates is important. It’s about momentum, media narrative, and general election viability.

Ohio is America’s preeminent bellwether state. It has picked the winner in 25 of the last 27 presidential elections. It provided the margin of victory in both of President George W. Bush’s campaigns. And electoral experts agree it provides a near-perfect microcosm of the general election landscape.

Moreover, this year, Ohio provides perhaps the last best chance for Santorum to regain the momentum from Romney and rewrite the story of the 2012 campaign. As of now, Santorum and his shoestring campaign lead in the polls, even though he failed to get enough signatures to qualify for delegates in three of the state’s congressional districts.

[Check out political cartoons about Rick Santorum.]

Santorum also has identified two major weaknesses for Romney--the Midwest and working-class voters. Santorum plays well to these candidates. His socially conservative campaign planks work well in the Heartland, and his calls for tax breaks for manufacturing appeal to those who see themselves as working-class voters even if they are not, in fact, working right now.

Team Obama has noticed this as well. And its super PAC, Priorities USA, has begun to meddle in the race on the side of Santorum in an attempt to weaken Romney, the opponent Democrats fear most.

[See political cartoons about President Obama.]

So the stakes are high. If Santorum can hold together his coalition in the face of the withering attacks certain to come from Team Romney and his infamous “whatever-it-takes” playbook, he not only can extend the race but also sow serious doubts about Romney’s viability as a national candidate.

If not, even with all four candidates far short of the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, the race, as Karl Rove has noted, is likely over.

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