- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2012

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum wrapped up their final full day of campaigning here before Tuesday’s pivotal Republican presidential primary here, delivering their respective closing arguments as Mr. Santorum’s stock dipped in the polls and Mr. Romney brushed off new questions about his support for a federal health care mandate.

The former Massachusetts governor kicked off his day at a steel manufacturer in Canton, where he argued that Republicans should be focused on strengthening the economy. His 25 years of experience in the business world, he said, give him the tools needed to tackle the nation’s economic and employment woes.

“I look at this campaign right now, and I see a lot of folks talking about lots of things, but what we need to talk about to defeat Barack Obama is getting good jobs and scaling back the size of government — and that’s what I do,” Mr. Romney said in an apparent swipe at Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who has often touted his socially conservative views on abortion, gay marriage and religion on the campaign trail.

“I keep bringing it back to more jobs, less debt and smaller government. That is what my campaign is about — and that is why I think we are doing well in this state,” Mr. Romney said.

Mr. Santorum, though, showed no signs of backing off on social issues, arguing at campaign stops that the nation cannot afford to ignore problems created by the breakdown of American families. In a conference call with reporters and on the campaign stump, Mr. Santorum made the case that Mr. Romney was for a federal health care mandate before he was against it — making him an unreliable conservative.

“What you have with Gov. Romney is someone who is simply not the genuine article. He’s not someone you can trust on the issue of big government,” Mr. Santorum said in the conference call.

Mr. Santorum spent months arguing that Mr. Romney’s support of a universal health care law in Massachusetts would hurt the party’s chances of capturing the White House in a general election and its effort to repeal the federal health care act that President Obama pushed through Congress and signed into law in 2010.

But he sharpened that line of attack in the run-up to Super Tuesday, the biggest day of the race, with primaries in Ohio, Georgia, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia, Oklahoma and Tennessee plus caucuses in Idaho, North Dakota and Alaska.

Mr. Santorum focused on Mr. Romney’s comments from a 2009 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” when he expressed support for the Healthy Americans Act, also known as the Wyden-Bennett Act, which failed to pass Congress, but included the same sort of individual mandate that Mr. Romney now assails on the campaign trail.

“He advocated for a government-mandated health insurance benefit, something he has been denying throughout the course of the campaign, and now we have it all on tape,” Mr. Santorum told the crowd here. “It is bad enough to be for a government-mandated health care system, which he clearly was in Massachusetts, and then say, ‘I never recommended it to the president.’ But now we have two or three instances where he clearly did. It is one thing to be for it; it is another thing to not tell the truth.”

The Romney camp countered immediately by saying that Mr. Santorum was “flailing around” in desperation after watching Mr. Romney string together four consecutive victories in recent contests.

Gov. Romney has been consistent in opposing a federal mandate,” Ryan Williams, a campaign spokesman, told reporters. “He supports a state-by-state approach.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who hasn’t had a victory since South Carolina in January, has basically staked his entire presidential campaign on winning the primary in Georgia, the state he represented in Congress for 20 years and where he sits atop a double-digit lead in the polls.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is trying to earn his first victory of the contest by focusing on the caucuses in Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota, where the libertarian icon’s loyal band of supporters could push him over the top.

Mr. Santorum is hoping for strong showings in Oklahoma and Tennessee, where he leads in the polls.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, hopes to continue the momentum from his wins in Arizona, Michigan, Washington state and Wyoming with additional victories in Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia. In Virginia, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum failed to meet the requirements necessary to get on the ballot.

Most of the political world, though, will be focused in on the sharp-elbowed race in Ohio, where Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum have resumed the Rust Belt battle they started in Michigan, a contest that turned out to be so close that the two Republicans split the state’s 30 delegates down the middle.

The latest polls show Mr. Romney with a slight edge in Ohio, knocking Mr. Santorum out of the top spot that he had held more or less since he swept the caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and the nonbinding primary in Missouri last month.

Since then, the Romney campaign and Restore Our Future, the independent super PAC run by former Romney staffers, have filled the airwaves here and elsewhere with advertisements, including negative ads that paint Mr. Santorum as a Washington insider.

In the conference call with reporters, Mr. Santorum couched the race in biblical terms, saying that after being outspent 12-to-1 in the race that it is “probably a little bit of an understatement” to see the political battle as “David versus Goliath.”

“We’re out here fighting for principles and the people of Ohio, in spite of the barrage of negativity from the [Romney] super PAC,” Mr. Santorum said.

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