Cover Story

Friendly fire

"Friendly fire" Continued...

Issue: "The battle," March 24, 2012

Consider the swing states: In Ohio, the Obama campaign has opened 10 offices and hired a dozen paid staffers. In New Hampshire, Obama has at least seven offices and 20 paid staff members. (Romney, the winner of the state's GOP primary, had one office open in January.)

In Virginia-where Obama in 2008 was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in 44 years-grassroots efforts are in full swing: The Saturday before Super Tuesday, the campaign listed 32 events across the state, including phone banks and door-to-door voter registration. The Virginia campaign includes a state director, five regional directors, a digital director, and a youth outreach staffer.

But despite the impressive campaign machine, there's a wildcard in this year's presidential contest: Super PACs. The political action committees operate independently of campaigns, but can direct funds towards advertising for candidates. A 2010 Supreme Court ruling allows the groups to raise funds without limits.

So far, PACs backing GOP candidates are outpacing by huge margins a PAC that favors Obama. Priorities USA raised $59,000 in January to bolster Obama's campaign. Meanwhile, Restore Our Future-a pro-Romney PAC-raised $6.6 million during the same month. The pro-Gingrich group Winning Our Future raised nearly $11 million in January, with nearly $10 million coming from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. The Santorum-supporting Red, White, and Blue raised $2.1 million.

In other cases, Super PACs aren't backing a single candidate, but are promoting conservative ideas that could help Republican candidates win in the fall. In Virginia, the economically conservative Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is more active than the state's Republican Party in hosting outreach events and Tea Party seminars, and in hiring staffers.

AFP state director Audrey Jackson says the key question in Virginia and other states is whether Democrats can rekindle the enthusiasm of 2008. She's betting no. "Barack Obama had a moment," she said. "He promised all these things-jobs would return. People aren't back to work."

Enthusiasm isn't just a Democratic concern. It may be the single biggest issue facing Romney's campaign. The candidate has raised and spent millions more than his nearest competitor, Rick Santorum, but continues winning many key contests by tight margins, and losing others altogether. Though Santorum would face a steep climb to match Romney's delegate count and snag the nomination, the candidate keeps delivering surprising victories with far fewer resources.

Fundraising isn't the only challenge Santorum has faced: Election officials in the Iowa caucuses declared Romney the winner of the first primary of the year. Two weeks later, they announced they were wrong: Santorum had won the close race. But the momentum-rich moment was gone. In Michigan, Santorum and Romney won an equal number of the state's 14 congressional districts, splitting the delegate count in half, but state officials awarded two more delegates to Romney. Santorum is contesting those results.

Despite the challenges, Santorum summed up his candidacy in a speech to Ohio supporters on the night of Super Tuesday: "We keep coming back."

Exit polls in tight races may offer glimpses into Santorum's ability to hang on: In Ohio, more than 50 percent of voters said Romney was the candidate most likely to beat Obama in November. But Romney's support among voters who considered themselves "very conservative" fell to 30 percent. (Santorum garnered 48 percent of those votes.) Santorum also continued his success with evangelical voters: The group chose him by 17 points in Ohio.

Voters in states that Santorum won underscored the importance of the candidate's connection with religious voters. At a campaign event at Temple Baptist Church in Powell, Tenn., one week before Super Tuesday, voters lined up to meet Santorum after a nearly 60-minute speech. Dawn Lockett, 55, a member of the evangelical congregation, said she's supported Santorum from the beginning: "He's one of my heroes."

The candidate's pro-life record is important to Lockett, but so is his emphasis in speeches on encouraging churches and communities to help people instead of increasing government assistance. Lockett says her husband lost his job two years ago, and though her family qualifies for food stamps, they haven't applied. She says her congregation is committed to helping struggling members, and she believes that's the best kind of help: "The government should not decide what's best for me."

But despite the warm welcome, the event at Temple Baptist highlighted a challenge for Santorum: figuring out how to balance discussions of God, morality, and social issues with a convincing economic platform that reaches a broader base of voters.

He's hit rough spots: The Catholic candidate's discussion of contraception (he called it wrong in an October media interview), and his comment that John F. Kennedy's speech on religion and government made him want to "throw up," have kept the focus on Santorum's religious beliefs.

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