ZANESVILLE, Ohio-To listen to the candidates here in Ohio, Super Tuesday features a fight between the poor underdog who holds consistent core values against the electable executive who has real economic experience.
Those were the narratives that Rick Santorum (underdog) and Mitt Romney (experienced executive) sought to sell Monday to voters in what is the key state of this biggest day in the topsy-turvy battle for the Republican presidential nomination.
Among the 10 states voting Tuesday, Ohio's 66 delegates are the second most at stake after Georgia's 76. But Ohio will get the Tuesday spotlight thanks to its role as a swing state in recent presidential elections (going for George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008). Republicans are hopeful that Ohio will be on their side in 2012 after Ohio voters in 2010 helped Republicans sweep every statewide office (including defeating a sitting governor) as well as defeat five incumbent Democrats in the U.S. House.
The polls show a close contest. Santorum, a former senator from neighboring Pennsylvania, is banking heavily on support from the Buckeye State to help him keep pace with Romney, who has rattled off wins in five straight states since Santorum's three-state surprise on Feb. 7.
Appearing at Dayton Christian School in Miamisburg on Monday, Santorum emphasized his underdog status. He described his rise from being stuck at 2 percent in the polls before Christmas to his current position of having won contests in four states.
"We shouldn't be in this race," he said.
To the several hundred crowded inside the school's cafeteria, Santorum, often sounding hoarse, talked about the financial sacrifices he has made to run.
"I walked away from all of the jobs that I had and all the money," he said. "At this point we're spending down our savings. That's not necessarily the best thing to do when you have three kids entering college in the next three years, but our country is worth it."
He then gave Romney a backhanded compliment by mentioning the "enormous amount of money" raised by Romney's campaign.
Romney and a pro-Romney super PAC spent a combined $3.8 million on commercials in Ohio. Meanwhile, Santorum and his backers have spent a combined $1 million on ads in the state.
"Money is not going to buy this election," Santorum said. "The best ideas and believing in the American people is going to win the election."
Santorum argued that his set of core values, including his belief in limited government, would make the clearest contrast with Obama's big government track record.
"Do we want someone who has gone along with this big government overreach in the most critical issue of this campaign," Santorum asked, alluding to Romney's support as governor of Massachusetts of a healthcare plan that is similar to President Obama's in some areas. "We better have someone who can present … [an] alterative vision … particularly on this key issue of government control of your lives, of government forcing people of faith to do things that are against their moral code."
"We trust you Rick," someone in the crowd shouted back.
Romney, during an early evening appearance in Zanesville, tired to describe himself as the inevitable Republican nominee.
"Look, if you do your job tomorrow we are going to win this thing," he said.
Throughout the day, Romney said he was ready to put the primary season behind him and focus on replacing Obama.
"We need to have a president who understands the economy if we're going to fix the economy," he said before critiquing the Capitol Hill-dominated experiences of his main GOP rivals. "My understanding of the economy and jobs does not come from my reading about it or by debating it in a subcommittee meeting. My experience in the economy came from actually living in the economy."
Touting a homemade "Mitt is it" sign, Gerry Gardner, 62 of Zanesville, said Romney is family-oriented and has the best executive experience.
"He is conservative enough," she said, adding that she doesn't understand voters who see Romney's wealth as a negative. "He shouldn't have to apologize for being successful."
But Phil Hopper, 35, said, "as a blue-collar American son of a janitor like myself, I wonder does Romney have a clue about what it is like where we are?"
Hopper, a Baptist pastor, drove an hour from a Cincinnati suburb to the Santorum event at Dayton Christian School, bringing along his four young children and pregnant wife.
"When Republicans nominate moderates we get beat," he said. "We've tried that with [Bob] Dole and [John] McCain. But when we run conservatives that is when we get the base excited."
But Spencer Hamner, 37, of Zanesville is backing Romney because "Romney can win. I don't think Santorum or [Newt] Gingrich can connect with enough people to beat Obama."
Pat Kallage, 65, of Washington Township attended Santorum's speech in Miamisburg because she's undecided on the candidates.
"You hear all the negatives about them and then you don't know," she said.
To Kallage, the most important factor is electability.
"Anybody but Obama," she said.