York: Romney pushes jobs, side issues trip rivals

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - "There are other folks in this campaign talking about a lot of other things, and that's fine," Mitt Romney told a crowd of several hundred people in this job-starved Rust Belt town on the eve of Super Tuesday. "But for me, it's more jobs, less debt, and smaller government."

While GOP rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have gotten sidetracked by contraception, Sandra Fluke, and other media obsessions of the moment, Romney has stuck close to his message on the economy and government spending. It shows a discipline in the campaign -- and in the candidate himself -- that other contenders just don't have.

Just go back to the last Republican debate, on Feb. 22 in Mesa, Ariz. Moderator John King asked all the candidates an innocuous question concerning misconceptions about themselves. Romney ignored it completely and started into his campaign pitch. When King reminded him of the question, Romney said, "You know, you get to ask the questions you want, and I get to give the answers I want."

It's not a strategy designed to make any friends in the press, but that approach has allowed Romney to steer clear of damaging controversies like the current brouhaha over contraception. On the Sunday morning programs just 48 hours before Super Tuesday voting, both Santorum and Gingrich got tangled up in questions about the issue. Romney, meanwhile, kept pushing jobs, jobs, jobs.

Here in Ohio's Mahoning Valley -- where median household income in Youngstown is $24,318 a year, compared with $47,358 statewide and $51,914 nationwide -- that's what people want to hear about.

"I've always liked Santorum, but he's pushing the issues of birth control and the church and all that," says Allen Ryan, a retired auto-parts maintenance supervisor from Champion, Ohio, whose pension suffered deep cuts as a result of the Obama administration's bailout deals. "That's just not my priority right now."

"I just wish they would get away from that," says Bruce Dilullo, a pharmacist from Poland, Ohio, of the contraception issue. "For some people, that kind of stuff is important, but there's just too much going on in this country right now that we really don't need to be talking about that right now."

It's not that Santorum isn't talking about the economy. Indeed, it's the biggest part of his campaign pitch. But for whatever reason, he has on many occasions allowed his economic message to become obscured by the controversies of the day -- sometimes controversies of his own making. That hurt him in Michigan, and it will probably hurt him in Ohio.

"I think the religious freedom issue is important to a lot of people, including here in the Mahoning Valley," says Sen. Rob Portman, who supports Romney and appeared with him at the Youngstown rally. "But look, the top issue is jobs and the economy."

Romney schedules a lot of his campaign events at factories and other businesses. In Youngstown, he appeared at Taylor Winfield Technologies, which, for want of a better description, makes really big machines. As he spoke, Romney stood in front of a giant car shredder that can turn an entire automobile into shards of scrap metal in about 15 seconds. (Romney loves cars so much that he has campaigned at both ends of the automotive life cycle, from the maker in Detroit to the shredder in Youngstown.)

Romney is still capable of tripping on his tongue, even in the friendliest of environments. In Youngstown, he introduced his wife Ann as "the heavyweight champion of my life." Catching himself after a couple of funny looks, he quickly added, "Wait, that didn't come out right." What he meant to say, he explained, was that she is a real fighter.

But on the big things, Romney is ruthlessly on message. "My understanding of the economy and jobs does not come from my reading about it or by debating it a subcommittee meeting," Romney told the crowd. "My experience in the economy came from actually living in the economy."

That approach appears to be working in Ohio. The polls suggest this state might be playing out like the recent Michigan primary: Santorum jumps to a sizable lead after victories in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri, but then Romney begins gradually catching up, winning at the finish line.

If that happens, it won't be just because of Romney's legendary attacks and negative ads. It will be because of his relentless, no-distractions focus on his campaign's mantra: more jobs, less debt, and smaller government.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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