Santorum rides Ohio blue-collar vote, falls short

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Hayley Peterson

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STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney barely fended off a challenge from rival Rick Santorum in Ohio on Tuesday, an indication of how far Romney still needs to go to win over the blue-collar conservatives who are having trouble connecting with the front-runner on a personal or philosophical level.

It's the second time since last month's primary in Michigan that Romney has faced such a serious challenge from Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania whose blue-collar roots and unabashed conservative views have generated excitement among primary voters even though he lacks Romney's campaign organization and cash.

Ohio offers a wealth of delegates but, more importantly, it's a key battleground state in the November contest against President Obama, and Romney was eager to demonstrate that he would be competitive there.

But Santorum's blue-collar roots and his willingness to talk openly and unapologetically about his faith made him an early favorite to win the Buckeye State, where two-thirds of the electorate earn between $30,000 and $100,000.

Romney, with a net worth of more than $200 million, has had a hard time connecting with those voters and only made matters worse in recent weeks with several gaffes that underscored his differences with voters.

Romney labored to erase his image as an elitist out of touch with the working class over the last couple days by staging rallies inside factories, where he surrounded himself with huge machines and voters in hard hats.

He changed his campaign trail stump speech to focus solely on his business experience and retooled his campaign message to focus almost exclusively on more jobs, less debt and smaller government, and leaving debates over divisive social issues to Santorum.

The message got through to a lot of voters, but it wasn't enough to help Romney dominate Ohio in the decisive way so many of his supporters had hoped.

Romney did well among voters over 45 with incomes greater than $100,000, according to CNN exit polls. Santorum, on the other hand, won among younger, lower-income voters and those without a college education.

Voters who described themselves as evangelicals, or born-again Christians, voted for Santorum over Romney by 47 percent to 43 percent. Voters who said they support the Tea Party were nearly split between the two candidates.

Those who described themselves as "very conservative" favored Santorum, while those who called themselves "moderate" or "somewhat conservative" favored Romney.

As in Michigan, another key general election battleground state, the Romney-Santorum showdown was too close to set Romney on a clear path to the nomination.

Based on Tuesday's contests, the long primary slog will continue for weeks, with Kansas voting on Saturday.

hpeterson@washingtonexaminer.com

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