CANTON, Ohio (Reuters) - In the final hours before Tuesday’s critical Republican presidential primary in Ohio, Mitt Romney’s strategy was clear: “Focus, focus, focus” on blue-collar and women voters.
Romney, seeking to fight off Rick Santorum and remain the front-runner in the Republican race as 10 states hold contests on Tuesday, campaigned across Ohio with a game plan drawn from his victory over Santorum last week in Michigan.
Romney zeroed in on the economy and largely ignored abortion, contraception and other social issues that appear to have turned some voters against Santorum, who has lost a double-digit lead in Ohio polls as he has made a series of controversial comments on such subjects.
Among the 10 states holding contests on “Super Tuesday,” none is as significant or symbolic as Ohio, a politically divided state in the industrial Rust Belt that will be pivotal in the November 6 election between Democratic President Barack Obama and the eventual Republican nominee.
Romney’s campaign has sought to play down Ohio’s significance in recent days, even as polls indicated the former Massachusetts governor was erasing Santorum’s big lead there.
On Monday, Romney toured Ohio factories and plants that Hollywood could use as scenery for movies about blue-collar, small-town America, walking factory floors as workers in hardhats and protective eyewear looked on.
“We used to joke we had three rules for turning around an enterprise in trouble,” Romney, who made a fortune as a private equity executive, told a small crowd at a factory here. “And the rules were these: Focus, focus and focus.”
That’s what Romney’s campaign seems to have found in recent days as it has battled back against Santorum.
In his stump speech, Romney continues to blast Obama’s defense of America strategy, carrying on a provocative - and much criticized - argument that Obama’s re-election would ensure that Iran gets a nuclear weapon.
But Romney has retooled his message to focus more squarely on jobs and economic opportunity - a key concern in Ohio, where the unemployment rate of 8.1 percent in December was lower than the national average but still alarming to many voters.
Romney’s new approach seems aimed at countering criticism that he is out of touch with the concerns of working-class Americans. But he appears to be winning over some voters who were intrigued by Santorum’s focus on revitalizing the manufacturing sector.
Gone from Romney’s stump speech is a section about his love for “the great hymns of America,” replaced with a narrative on the “tough times” Ohioans are facing.
Romney repeatedly told a crowd in Canton that the economy is “what I do,” taking a thinly veiled shot at Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, by saying that Romney didn’t learn about the economy “by debating it in some subcommittee.”
And at every event, with an eye on winning women voters, Romney had his popular wife, Ann, whip up the crowds and emphasize Romney’s private-sector experience. Ann Romney called her husband a “turnaround guy.”
Her message was recalibrated toward blue-collar voters as well. For the first time this campaign, Ann Romney’s introduction of her husband included a story about her grandfather, whom she described as a “Welsh coal-miner.”
Senior Romney advisers said they learned a valuable lesson from exit polling data in last week’s primary Michigan, Romney’s native state. Despite receiving a scare from Santorum there, Romney was able to secure a win.
The lesson, the advisers said, is that voters who care most about the economy are voting for Romney, and there are more voters who care about the economy than there are those who are worried about social issues such as contraception or religious liberty.
“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,” Romney said. “What I know is the economy. I’ve spent my life in the real economy. I understand why jobs come and why they go.”
Romney’s advisers continue to cast the nomination race as a long battle for state delegates, but they appear to recognize that symbolically, Romney needs to defeat Santorum in Ohio to silence questions about whether the front-runner can connect with blue-collar voters and wrap up the nomination.
That sentiment was evident over the weekend, as Romney interrupted his Ohio campaign on Sunday to make quick trips to Tennessee and Georgia, two other Super Tuesday states.
By that night, Romney was back in Ohio.
Editing by David Lindsey and Philip Barbara