Ohio looms large on Super Tuesday. Can Romney increase his delegate lead?

A win in Ohio on Super Tuesday could restore Mitt Romney's clear front-runner status. But senior Republicans are decrying the toxic nature of the campaign, and some prominent conservative commentators doubt that either Romney or Rick Santorum could beat Barack Obama.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney greets audience members at a campaign rally at Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio Friday March 2, 2012.
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Among the 10 states holding presidential primary elections or caucuses this coming “Super Tuesday,” Ohio may be the biggest enchilada. It’s a genuine swing state, and the economy – Mitt Romney’s claimed area of presidential expertise – has been hit hard there.

Having won Michigan and Arizona this week, Romney reclaims front-runnerhood. Bagging Ohio could revive his “inevitable” status, some Republican insiders are saying.

“If he does [win Ohio], it’s over,” GOP strategist Ed Rollins told the Washington Post. “All that’s left is convention speeches and the balloon drop.”

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Well, maybe.

Newt Gingrich is going for broke in Georgia (which actually awards ten more delegates than Ohio), the state he represented in Congress. Rick Santorum looks very strong in Oklahoma and Tennessee.

If Santorum wins those two states, and if he squeaks a win in Ohio, the day definitely will be his and Romney’s status will revert to shaky.

It well could happen. On Monday, the independent Quinnipiac University poll had Santorum ahead of Romney in Ohio 36-29 percent among likely Republican voters. Another Ohio poll out the same day, this one conducted by the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Cincinnati, had Santorum ahead by 11 points (37-26).

By Friday, Santorum’s lead had shrunk to 35-31(within the margin of polling error), according to Quinnipiac, leaving the race for votes there virtually tied.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s online “Crystal Ball” gives it to Romney “quite narrowly.”

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But Romney has problems there, maybe big problems. The auto industry is a big part of Ohio’s industrial economy, much of it unionized. As everybody knows, Romney opposed the government bailout of the auto industry, and he also backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich’ s effort to restrict public unions’ collective-bargaining rights – which failed by a large margin as a ballot measure.

Santorum may have a point of entry here to the extent that he successfully presents himself to mid- and lower-income Ohio primary voters as a “blue collar Republican."

But it’s worth noting that both Romney and Santorum have seen their “unfavorable” rating rise in Ohio in recent weeks, according to the Quinnipiac University poll.

And for Romney especially, the bloom seems to be going off his rose among some prominent conservative commentators.

Though he won Michigan and Arizona, writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “He lost his general election narrative.”

Speaking of Romney’s recent tax reform speech, writes Douthat, “The Romney campaign has declined to explain exactly how the cuts will be paid for, offering vague promises of loophole closing and spending cuts that suggest a return to supply-side irresponsibility.”

“If left unrevised and unaddressed, this irresponsibility threatens to demolish the pillars of Romney’s general-election argument,” he warns. “Between his verbal miscues and his clumsy attempts to defend his right flank on policy, the likely Republican nominee is suddenly headed for the kind of political and ideological cul-de-sac that losing presidential candidates often end up occupying.”

Syndicated columnist George Will goes even farther, suggesting that Republicans might as well concentrate on taking over the US Senate and building their majority in the House of Representatives rather than trying to oust the incumbent President.

Neither Santorum nor Romney “seems likely to be elected,” Will writes in a column to be published Sunday and seen in advance by Politico’s Mike Allen.

“From Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal to Wisconsin's Rep. Paul Ryan, Republicans have a rising generation of potential 2016 candidates,” he writes. “[T]he presidency is not everything, and there will be another election in the next year divisible by four.”

Perhaps by then, the toxic atmospherics around the Republican nomination race – decried recently by Sen. John McCain and former GOP governors Jeb Bush, Haley Barbour, and Mike Huckabee – will have improved, and the scene won’t make Sen. McCain feel like he’s “watching a Greek tragedy," as he said this week.

RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Mitt Romney? A quiz.

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