Mitt Romney is pressing to refocus the Republican presidential race on jobs and the economy in the sprint to potentially pivotal Super Tuesday contests next week, looking to blunt rival Rick Santorum’s bid to sow doubts about his record on social issues.
Romney, seeking momentum after twin primary wins, assailed President Barack Obama’s energy policies and offered himself as the only Republican candidate with the business experience to create jobs. Santorum, his leading rival, raised questions about Romney’s core beliefs and commitment to socially conservative principles.
Both men were aiming for victories in the 11 contests to be held March 6, which together award the largest delegate haul in the campaign so far and could go a long way to determining the nominee in an unpredictable Republican race.
A poll released today by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute in Hamden, Connecticut, shows the race tightening in Ohio, a Super Tuesday state that is expected to be a battleground in the general election. Santorum has a four-point lead in the poll, 35 percent to Romney’s 31 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points. The telephone poll was conducted Feb. 29 and March 1 among 517 likely Republican primary voters.
The previous Quinnipiac poll in Ohio gave Santorum a seven- point lead, 36 percent to 29 percent.
‘Go Out and Vote’
Romney, 64, a former Massachusetts governor, yesterday implored voters in North Dakota and Idaho, which hold caucuses that day, to participate in the contests.
“I don’t need a lot; I just need you to go out and vote,” Romney said in a high school gymnasium packed with about 1,000 people in Idaho Falls. “I want to make sure we win, we win solidly in Idaho, that I get the delegates I need to go on and win the nomination.”
Santorum, seeking to rebound from losses in the Arizona and Michigan Feb. 28 primaries, appealed to voters in Georgia -- the state that awards the most delegates next week -- to “stand with the conservative” in the race.
Two thousand miles to the northwest in Idaho Falls, Romney said he is “running against some good guys in the primary, but you know, they don’t have any experience in business.”
“To get America on track, to create good jobs, it helps to have a president who’s had a good job, and I have,” he said.
Romney strategists attribute his win in Michigan’s primary to his economy-focused message and think the theme will be crucial to his chances in Ohio, which also has been hit hard by the downturn and high unemployment, said an adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
Still, Romney’s campaign is playing down expectations for a decisive victory March 6 that would solidify his grasp on the nomination, arguing that the former governor is simply pressing to collect as many delegates as he can.
Romney made the pitch as he sought to pivot from a flap yesterday over his stance on contraception coverage, renewing his criticism of Obama’s economic record and blaming the president for slowing U.S. energy development.
Obama “has tried to slow the growth of oil and gas production in this country, and coal production,” Romney said during an appearance in Fargo, North Dakota. “Far from taking credit, he should be hanging his head and taking a little bit of the blame for what’s going on today.”
He said Obama has halved lease rates and slashed drilling permits by a third, and is now trying to get the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate hydraulic fracturing.
“He’s got 10 federal agencies trying to push their way into fracking so that they can slow down the development of oil and gas,” Romney told a few hundred people seated on a warehouse floor at Wrigley Mechanical, a mechanical contracting company in Fargo.
Romney’s promise to expand energy development came in a state where an oil boom has fueled an 8.7 percent growth in economic health during Obama’s presidency, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States index that measures such statistics as tax collections, personal income, home prices and employment.
The Obama administration has emphasized data that show domestic crude oil production at the highest level in eight years. At the same time, U.S. warnings to Iran about its nuclear program helped drive gasoline futures to a nine-month high.
Who’s to Blame?
The U.S. public spreads the blame for higher gasoline prices, citing Obama, oil companies and unrest in the Middle East, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington.
Eighteen percent fault the Obama administration, 14 percent say oil companies are to blame and 11 percent cite the situation with Iran and in the Middle East, Pew said. The poll was conducted Feb. 23-26 among 1,005 adults. The error margin is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Discussing energy policy for the third time in a week, Obama said in a speech in Nashua, New Hampshire, that his Republican critics are “licking their chops” at the prospect of rising gasoline prices as higher energy costs threaten to crimp the economic recovery.
Romney also presented himself in Fargo as a defender of social conservatives’ priorities, telling a voter who asked him about gun laws that he would “protect the right to bear arms.”
He used the question as a chance to reiterate his support for a Senate measure that would allow employers to deny health- insurance coverage for contraception and other services that violate their principles. The legislation, proposed by Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who backs Romney, was defeated yesterday on a 51-48 vote in the Democrat-controlled chamber.
Romney created confusion yesterday about his stance on the legislation, telling an Ohio television interviewer he didn’t support it, only to have his campaign quickly issue a statement saying he did back the bill and had misunderstood the question.
The Obama administration health-care rule the measure sought to undo “violates the conscience of the church, the conscience of individuals and fortunately there’s an effort in Washington to stop that, to reverse that,” Romney said yesterday.
The dust-up over contraceptives reflected doubts many Republican rank-and-file voters have about Romney’s stance on social issues.
Freedom of Religion
Santorum, 53, the former Pennsylvania senator who has emphasized his opposition to abortion rights, seized on the episode, saying it gave voters insight into “what’s in the gut of Governor Romney.”
“If I was asked a question like that, my gut reaction” would always be “you stand for the First Amendment. You stand for freedom of religion,” he told voters gathered in an airport hangar in Atlanta. “You want someone who at their core believes and is going to step up and fight, not put them on the back burner.”
Santorum told Washington state residents at a rally at church in Spokane that they had the power to pack another punch at Romney.
“The best chance for us to win is not to go along with the good old boys who always want to nominate a moderate,” he said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Idaho Falls at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Dalton, Georgia at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at firstname.lastname@example.org