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Santorum and Romney battle for the “soul of America” in the nation’s skeptical heartland
BOSTON – With just one day to go before the 10-state extravaganza that will likely determine the outcome of the Republican race, all eyes are on Ohio.
This midwestern state in America’s heartland is the big prize on Super Tuesday — the one major electorate that is still up for grabs. Several polls show former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum with a slight edge, but former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is close on his heels and spending money like crazy in his bid to finally seize the undisputed frontrunner’s crown.
Romney has the “Big Mo” going into Super Tuesday, with a clear win in Washington’s caucus on Saturday. The contest was a straw poll, a “beauty contest” in which no delegates were at stake. The state’s representatives to the national convention will not be selected until June 2, but Romney got nearly 38 percent of the vote and a powerful boost on the road to the nomination.
But momentum may not be enough to give him a victory in Ohio, where the evangelical vote is strong, where unemployment is high, and where voters are taking a close look at what seems to be an unprepossessing field.
Romney has spent well over $1.2 million just in Ohio, according to media reports, far outstripping his opponents. The ads on all sides have been overwhelmingly negative, leading to another potential backlash from voters who are turned off by the whole process.
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“I am, frankly disgusted by Romney’s teardown campaign,” said Greg Becker, an evangelical pastor in Dalton, Ohio, a small, semi-rural town on the edge of Amish country. “Not that Santorum is perfect by any means, it’s just that I do not have a high opinion of people who seek to elevate themselves by degrading others. But,” he added philosophically, ”that’s politics.”
Becker has strong views on all of the candidates, but cannot seem to make up his mind how to vote in Tuesday’s election.
Most the candidates have their plusses, he stressed, but they have also have negatives that threaten to overwhelm them.
“Romney is a poor candidate,” Becker said. “He cannot connect to the average guy. He is elitist, and that’ll kill him. He may be too rich to win.”
But his chief rival also has his faults.
“Santorum, on the other hand, is a nice guy, with a big family and strong beliefs,” Becker said. “He came across to us as the anti-Romney candidate. But he is not prepared to be president. He has said some things that show his lack of maturity.”
As an example, he pointed to Santorum’s statement that a speech by John F. Kennedy in 1960 on the absolute separation of church and state had made him “want to throw up.”
“Yeah, that wasn’t too good, was it,” chuckled Becker.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich “is a great idea guy, but he is not a leader,” in Becker’s opinion. “He just has too much baggage,” added the pastor.
Becker’s special scorn is reserved for Ron Paul, who deserves “wack job of the year.”
“He is like a crazy uncle who should be kept in the closet,” Becker said. “He has two or three points he keeps repeating. I know them by heart by now. I would appreciate it if he would remain offstage.”
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But one of these men will get his vote on Tuesday, says Becker, because the first priority has to be unseating President Barack Obama.
“In Ohio, where we are, manufacturing has been devastated,” he said. “Small-town America has taken a beating. The president has to figure out how to compete in the world, or we will not survive as a consumer society.”
Becker is a retired health insurance executive, and has seen what has happened to his former colleagues.
“President Obama has blown it up,” he said. “My friends and family have lost jobs, some have lost half their income. My wife is a financial coordinator in the educational system. I see what over-regulation has done to her work. I am leery of over-regulation. Can’t we just have a good conservative candidate?”
Becker admired Obama in 2008, although he did not vote for him. But the president has failed America, says Becker.
“The president has to be like a coach,” he explained. “It’s not so much the exact play as telling everyone that we’re going to win. With Obama, there’s more a sense that we’ve blown it.”
So, with the primary on the horizon, it’s time to make a choice.
“I see people getting more passionate about Romney,” said Becker. “He ran the Olympics, he was a governor, he ran a business. Santorum is confident in what he believes, and I like that, but I don’t think he knows what to say to get his views into the mainstream.”
Santorum has had a series of rather embarrassing gaffes lately that have made him seem even more extreme in his views than he wasoriginally. He called Obama “a snob” for asking that all Americans commit to some training after high school, he has assailed “radical feminists” for undermining the family, has condemned contraception as leading to unbridled sex, and has suggested that prenatal testing be curbed so as not to encourage abortion.
This has made him vulnerable to attack, and may finally sabotage his campaign.
“I think it ends up with Romney,” agreed Becker. “He has been so effective at attacking his opponents that he’ll be the last man standing.”
The thought does not make Becker too happy.
“I wish I could tell you I was excited about one of the candidates,” he said. “But I will vote.”
Ohio will award 63 of its 66 delegates on Tuesday, on a proportional basis.
Theoretically, that is.
But an organizational flub by the Santorum team means that the candidate did not submit district delegate names in nine of Ohio’s 16 districts, making him ineligible to receive those delegates. If he should win a district where he did not seat delegates, no delegates will be allocated, setting the scene for challenges from the other contenders.
In all, it could end in a very big mess.
For voters like Greg Becker, this is just another sign of how things have declined since the days when America was the undisputed master of the universe.
“Sometimes, when I can’t sleep at night, I listen to the old crooners – Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, those guys from the 30s, 40s, and 50s,” he said wistfully. “What you hear in their music is such incredible optimism. There is something uniquely American in that optimism; it motivated us.”
He paused for a bit, and concluded,
“It is not like that any more. Nowadays, there is so much darkness.”