Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gained momentum in the Republican presidential primary, picking up endorsements and rising in polls before state contests March 6 that may determine the party nomination.
Fresh off a victory yesterday in Washington’s caucus, Romney won the backing of U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, as surveys showed him building support in Ohio, a political bellwether, and holding an outsized advantage over rivals in Virginia.
The developments boosted Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and second-time presidential candidate, in a tight race with Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has emerged as his main rival. The two are competing for an edge on so-called Super Tuesday, when 11 states controlling a total of 466 delegates hold contests.
Santorum said he’s likely to narrow Romney’s lead in the nominating fight should former House Speaker Newt Gingrich decide to drop from the race.
Speaking on the “Fox News Sunday” program, Santorum predicted he’ll do “very well” in Ohio, one of the March 6 primary states, overcoming his money disadvantage against Romney.
“It’s always harder when you’ve got two conservative candidates out there running in the race,” said Santorum. “If you continue to combine the votes that Congressman Gingrich and I get, we’re doing pretty well.
‘‘Newt’s got to figure out where he goes after Georgia,” he said. “We’re the ones that are the clear alternative.”
Gingrich in Georgia
Surveys show Gingrich, who represented Georgia in Congress, leading in that Super Tuesday state, though he is running at least five to 10 percentage points behind Romney and Santorum in most national polls and according to a series of Gallup Daily tracking polls.
“This race narrows to two candidates over time and that’s where we have our opportunity,” Santorum said on Fox.
Gingrich, speaking on ABC’s “This Week” program, rejected any suggestion he should drop out. “We’re going to go on,” he said. Romney “is a frontrunner without any question, but I think he’s not a very convincing frontrunner, and he’s a long way from having closed out this race,” said Gingrich.
Gingrich said there ‘is a huge difference between Santorum and me,’’ calling Santorum “a labor union senator from Pennsylvania.” Once the race moves away from the industrial states “it gets harder for Rick to put together a majority,” said Gingrich.
Romney, who won a nonbinding straw poll taken during the Washington State caucuses yesterday, was shown to be gaining on Santorum in an NBC/Marist poll released today, with 34 percent for Santorum to Romney’s 32 percent, within the margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
The Super Tuesday contests will help determine how long the race will continue and whether Santorum has a chance of mounting a sustained challenge to Romney for the nomination. Ohio, a swing state with a large population of evangelical voters, will be a test for both candidates. To win the nomination a candidate needs 1,144 delegates out of the 2,286 that will be awarded nationwide.
The Tuesday contests also include primaries in Oklahoma and Tennessee, where polls give Santorum the edge.
Gingrich said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program that all Republicans would join to back the eventual nominee because President Barack Obama has been “such a disaster” for the U.S.
Speaking on the same program, Virginia Representative Eric Cantor, the House Republican majority leader, said he endorsed Romney because he would lower taxes and help the U.S “get back on track” as a nation. Coburn endorsed Romney in today’s Oklahoman newspaper.
The Romney campaign portrayed Cantor’s endorsement as evidence that the Republican Party is coalescing around their candidate, and regards Santorum as detrimental to their chances of holding the U.S. House and winning the Senate.
“Republicans want coattails, not concrete shoes,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney adviser, told reporters traveling with him to Atlanta for a campaign event there. “Rick Santorum is a concrete shoe for Republicans who are running for the Senate or for the House.” He also said Santorum would be the “wrong contrast to put up against President Obama in the fall.”
Ohio officials have said that Santorum, 53, may be ineligible to win 18 of the Ohio delegates because he failed to file full slates in some congressional districts. He’s also ineligible for at least some of the delegates at stake in Virginia, where he didn’t meet requirements to be listed on the ballot, and in Tennessee.
As the candidates competed in Ohio yesterday, the Romney campaign said Santorum’s failure to qualify for some of the 66 Ohio delegates up for grabs is a symbol of broader troubles, arguing that it shows Santorum has a disorganized campaign and couldn’t compete with Obama in the general election.
Santorum, speaking on Fox, said the Virginia filing deadline was in early December, before his campaign had national prospects.
“I was out running across the state of Iowa and sitting at 2 percent in the national polls,” he said. “With very, very limited resources we didn’t have the ability to go out.”
‘Played for Fools’
The candidates spoke as the president prepares to speak to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee meeting in Washington. It’s the biggest pro-Israel organization in the U.S.
The conference, being held today through March 6, is an opportunity for Obama to bolster his support among Jewish- American voters, while Obama’s Republican opponents probably will use the conference to make the case Obama’s support of Israel has been insufficient. Romney, Santorum and Newt Gingrich are scheduled to make remarks to the conference on March 6.
If and when to use military action to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program has replaced the Israel-Palestinian peace process as the dominant issue in the Israel-U.S. alliance.
“We’ve had no evidence that the president is prepared to take steps to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” Gingrich said on CNN’s “State of the Union” show. “They talk and the Iranians build. They talk and the Iranians build. And we’re being played for fools.”
Republican candidate Ron Paul, a Texas congressman, also criticized Obama on CNN, saying the U.S. shouldn’t interfere in the Iran-Israel standoff.
“It doesn’t make any sense to bomb a country that is no threat to anybody just because they might get a weapon,” Paul said. “I’d try to calm it down a little bit,” he said, “but I don’t think we should tell Israel what they should and shouldn’t do.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Heidi Przybyla in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Atlanta at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org