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Opportunity lost, Santorum retools for must-win Ohio

by
Santorum VS Romney
Santorum VS Romney

By Sam Youngman

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan (Reuters) - After missing a golden opportunity to dethrone the front-runner, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has begun to retool his message as he turns his sights to Super Tuesday.

Santorum fell to rival Mitt Romney in the latter's home state of Michigan even though it appeared as late as Tuesday afternoon that Santorum could steal a win here and reset the race for the chance to take on President Barack Obama in the November general election.

In a speech on Tuesday after results were known, Santorum moved his message away from the social issues for which he is known and tightened his focus on themes dear to blue-collar voters who will have a big say when the race moves to Super Tuesday next week, which includes what is now the must-win state of Ohio.

The former senator seemed to be making an appeal to both women and blue-collar voters, opening his remarks with comments about his wife, his 93-year-old grandmother and his daughter Elizabeth.

Usually happy to speak for about 45 minutes about topics ranging from abortion to radical Islam, Santorum kept his speech brief after losing, making rising gas prices and revitalizing the manufacturing sector the core elements of his comments, saying "bureaucrats in Washington don't care about flyover country."

"Are we a country that believes in big government, do we believe in the smart and elite in this country to manage us or do you believe in free people and a free economy and building a great America from the bottom up?" Santorum said.

Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said that Santorum, who came under fire for calling Obama a "snob" for wanting all Americans to go to college, blew a "fantastic opportunity" in Michigan.

MINI-CONTROVERSIES

"His messaging was not focused, and he created mini-controversies with over-the-top rhetoric on the 1960 Kennedy speech, on President Obama's desire to improve access to college and on the recent hot-button issue of contraception, all of which made it easy for the media and the Romney campaign to define him as extreme and unelectable," Mackowiak said.

Fervent Catholic Santorum's frequent references to religion on the campaign trail had mixed results in Michigan. Exit polls showed that while evangelical Christians backed Santorum, more Catholics actually supported Romney, and voters who described themselves as Protestant chose Santorum by a difference of only two percentage points.

Given the seemingly endless ups and downs of the race for the Republican nomination, Santorum was not conceding anything, traveling to the Super Tuesday states of Tennessee, Washington state and, most importantly, Ohio throughout the rest of the week. Mackowiak said Santorum will need to hone his message to blue-collar workers to have success moving forward.

"For Santorum to make the most of the next week leading up to Super Tuesday, he must refocus his message on his appeal to blue collar workers and the middle class, with less of a focus on social issues," Mackowiak said. "After tonight, Santorum must win Ohio to survive Super Tuesday with a realistic path to the nomination."

Romney, whose father was a Michigan governor in the 1960s, will not have the advantage of being a native son when he and Santorum fight it out in Ohio. But Santorum may be damaged after making "robocalls" to Michigan Democrats to ask for their support in a tactic that upset Republicans.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Eric Walsh)

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