CINCINNATI — In swing-state Ohio, support has been swinging in a lot of directions as the Republican presidential primary approaches.
And with a little more than two weeks left, the outcome still looks up in the air. Polls have shown lead changes every month since last fall, and a new statewide poll indicates that about half of likely primary voters could still change their minds by March 6.
The Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday also found Rick Santorum surging past Mitt Romney, last month’s poll leader. Before that, it was Newt Gingrich leading, before him pizza magnate Herman Cain, and before them, Romney in a tight race over Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Santorum had an apparent lead over the former Massachusetts governor, 36 percent to 29 percent, with Gingrich third with 20 percent. Two months ago, the poll gave Gingrich a 36-18 lead over Romney.
The latest telephone survey interviewed 553 likely Republican voters from Feb. 7-12 and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
The stakes are high in Ohio. The state offers 66 delegates, second only to Georgia in the 10-state “Super Tuesday” voting. That means a lot of campaign resources will likely be aimed at Ohio to sway voters down the stretch.
“I assume we’re going to see a ton of negative ads the next few weeks,” said Herb Weisberg, an Ohio State University political scientist, adding that the candidates will make more swings through the state.
“I think that’s going to be important. They’re going to target the parts of the state they consider the best for each of them,” Weisberg said.
“We’ll see these polls shifting in the next few weeks,” said Mark Weaver, a veteran GOP consultant in Ohio who is supporting Romney. He says Romney’s steady pace will prevail. “It’s like the tortoise and the hare. All the other folks have been taking turns being the hare.”
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, and Romney, a native of Michigan, are headed to a showdown first in Michigan on Feb. 28. Former House Speaker Gingrich, trying to marshal his resources for a Super Tuesday comeback, has signaled he will make a substantial effort in Ohio. He campaigned from Cincinnati to Cleveland in an earlier, four-city February swing.
Santorum could build upon his recent momentum if he can continue to gain support from Christian social conservatives who have been a major force in some recent Ohio elections. He has been stepping up his efforts in the state, with four weekend events scheduled.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul has lagged behind in the Ohio polls, getting some 9 percent in the last Quinnipiac poll. However, his backers say he has good grass-roots support.
“He attracts a lot of different people,” said Chris Littleton, a Cincinnati tea party activist who likes Paul. “He is wildly popular with young people.”
They’re also urging independent and Democratic supporters of Paul to vote in the Republican primary. Crossing over in Ohio’s primary is relatively easy to do — just ask Mike Morris. The fictional Democratic presidential candidate played by George Clooney in “The Ides of March” blamed his Ohio primary loss on Republican crossover voters.
The state’s crucial history for Republicans — none has won the White House without carrying Ohio — make the primary a key test of would-be GOP nominees’ appeal in a diverse state of big cities, small towns and large rural stretches.
“We’re a big state and in a lot of ways, Ohio is a microcosm of America as a whole,” Weaver said.
Polls have indicated it is likely to be a close, pivotal state in November.
One of the most consistent Ohio survey findings has been Romney faring best among Republicans in a head-to-head matchup with President Barack Obama in the general election. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Romney (44) and Obama (46) were in a virtual dead heat, while the Democratic president led Santorum 47-41 and Gingrich 50-38.
Supporters of Obama, who carried Ohio in 2008, have been active in the state for months in preparation for November. Ohio spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said supporters have held thousands of volunteer meetings, house parties, voter registration efforts, canvasses and phone banks already.
“Regardless of the outcome of the Republican primaries, one thing is for sure — the Obama campaign has the strongest grass-roots organization of any candidate moving forward in Ohio,” Kershaw said.