The day before Super Tuesday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney brought his message of job-creation and increased prosperity to a part of the state that doesn’t see many Republicans.
After courting a wealthier constituency in the Republican stronghold of Cincinnati over the weekend, Mr. Romney campaigned Monday in Youngstown, an embattled blue-collar city in dire economic straits that is trying to crawl back after decades of population loss and other forms of decline associated with the fading steel industry.
Among the 10 states holding presidential primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday, Ohio, with 66 delegates at stake and expected to be a swing state in the general election in the fall, is perhaps the most sought-after prize. On the eve of the primary Mr. Romney was locked in a tight battle with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who has shown strength among blue-collar voters.
At a town hall meeting of factory workers and others held at manufacturing plant in Youngstown, Romney declared Monday that if he wins Ohio, he’ll get his party’s nomination.
“My message to Mahoning Valley is pretty straightforward: I want to bring good jobs back here. I want to see rising incomes again,” he said, referring to the surrounding region.
After securing a victory in his home state of Michigan last week, Romney is casting his eyes on Ohio, a state that – in several ways – mirrors the manufacturing profile of its neighbor. Not only is the United Auto Workers alive and well here – G.M.’s Lordstown Assembly Plant is the largest employer in the region and is located down the road from where Romney was speaking – but the area is also home to many suppliers that directly service the Detroit industry.
“The auto industry is just as important in Ohio as it is in Michigan,” says Paul Allen Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus. “It’s the second leading state in terms of automotive employment in the country, so [manufacturing] is become an important issue here.”
Polls show Romney and Mr. Santorum in a tight race. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday shows Romney and Santorum polling at 34 percent and 31 percent respectively while another poll by Suffolk University in Boston, also released Monday, shows Santorum at 37 percent and Romney at 33 percent.
In the battle for Ohio’s 66 delegates, Romney already edges Santorum because of an organizational error: Santorum will not be in the ballot in three congressional districts and failed to file a full list of delegates in six other districts, making him ineligible for a third of the state’s delegates.
Both candidates crisscrossed the state Monday, talking with Ohioans in rustbelt communities where unemployment rates in some equal or are above state and national averages. In Youngstown, for example, unemployment hit 8.2 percent in December, slightly higher than the state rate but just below the national rate of 8.5 percent.
Many at the Romney town hall ceded that the economy trumped all other concerns.
“Job creation. Nothing more important than the jobs,” says Robert Saffold, a former steel worker and now an advocate for minority-owned small businesses in his state. Mr. Saffold drove from Cleveland to hear Romney speak; he says he is still undecided but will “probably” give Romney his vote because the former governor “has the best chance to make [President] Obama talk more about jobs” in the national debate.
Despite the assembly of Republicans – one woman, holding up Romney’s book, told its author she “makes no apology for being a Republican” in the area – Youngstown remains stoutly Democratic, having given two-thirds of the vote to Obama and Sen. John Kerry in the last two presidential elections. The national ties to the party are tight – last year, Obama appointed Jay Williams, Youngstown’s last mayor, to head the Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers.
Romney, however, appears to be leaving no stone unturned in his battle with Santorum, and there were signs Monday that some voters no longer feel they owe an allegiance to either party, with some echoing Romney’s remark that Obama “hasn’t, in three years, proposed any serious solutions” to fix the troubled economy.
Michele Bolchalk, a registered nurse from nearby Warren, says she is a life-long Democrat who plans to vote Republican for the first time in her life this year. She says her family is straining to make ends meet and is dismayed at the rising national debt she says illustrates reckless spending by the administration.
Romney’s appearance at Taylor Winfield Technologies, a plant that manufactures automated assembly systems, convinced Mike Warner, a worker at the plant for 33 years, that the former governor deserves a try to reignite the economy.
“In the last three years, things have slowly gone downhill, and I think it’s time for a change to see if [Romney] can get things back on its feet,” Mr. Warner says.
Denise Leone of Youngstown, a retired plant worker who describes herself as a “blue collar Christian,” says that her vote will go to Romney solely on the fact that he appears more winnable than the other Republican contenders for president.
“I like them all, but we need someone in there who will beat Obama, and Romney has the best chance,” Ms. Leone says.