BLUE ASH, Ohio — Washington state was Saturday’s prize for the Republican presidential candidates, but they focused on delegate-rich Ohio, among the 10 states holding contests on Super Tuesday in what will be campaign’s biggest payday.
All four contenders have visited Washington ahead of the caucuses, but three of the four are campaigning in Ohio, the critical primary state next week. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are fighting for the Midwestern state — and it promises to be another important test for Romney, who seeks to quell doubts about his candidacy from voters and the party establishment.
Santorum downplayed his expectations for Washington state while speaking Saturday morning at a rally that drew hundreds in Blue Ash, Ohio, a conservative corner of the state on the Kentucky border.
“We’re trailing in the polls out there, but we feel like we might do pretty well,” he said. “It would be a nice surprise heading into Super Tuesday’s events here to have a good lift out of the state of Washington.”
The former Pennsylvania senator repeatedly lashed out at Romney, charging the health care policy implemented while Romney was Massachusetts’ governor had inspired President Barack Obama’s health care bill and forced Catholic hospitals in the state to distribute the “morning-after pill.”
“He is uniquely unqualified to go against Barack Obama in the biggest issue in this election,” Santorum said.
Romney had criticized his rivals the night before at a rally in Cleveland.
“Let me tell you, the other guys, they spent their lives in Washington, working in a world of influence and in some cases lobbying,” Romney said. “Except if you want to get the economy fixed and you want to create jobs, I think it helps to have had a job. And I have.”
The Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses stretch from Vermont to Alaska — where Texas Rep. Ron Paul was set to campaign Saturday — but the top showdown is in this industrial state, a rematch of sorts after Michigan’s primary. Romney won narrowly there over Santorum.
Romney flew to Ohio on Friday afternoon after a stop in Bellevue, where he held a campaign fundraiser and appeared at a rally at a community center.
“There are going to be a bunch of states that are going to make their mind up in the next couple days and so you guys are first,” Romney told an overflow crowd of hundreds. “Show up — it won’t take a long time, it’ll just make a big difference.”
Santorum, who visited Washington in February, was back Thursday for rallies in the more conservative eastern region, while Romney, who has been working to build support from establishment Republicans here and has rolled out dozens of local endorsements, hosted a high-dollar fundraiser in Bellevue, where tech giant Microsoft is based.
Their visits came on the heels of one by Gingrich last week.
Washington’s caucuses are the last before Super Tuesday contests in Idaho, Alaska, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia, offering a total of 419 delegates.
Washington’s caucuses are an opportunity for Paul. He’s the only candidate on the air, having spent roughly $40,000 to run ads on cable channels.
At stake are 40 delegates to the Republican national nominating convention this summer, a cache second only to Florida’s 50 in contests thus far. Registered voters of all political stripes can participate in the caucuses, but they must sign an affidavit identifying themselves as Republican and promising not to participate in a caucus for another party.
In Ohio, Romney, Santorum and Gingrich plan to participate in a forum hosted by Mike Huckabee and taping Saturday afternoon. Romney also planned events in Dayton and Cincinnati. Santorum and Gingrich were both set to speak at a Lincoln Day dinner in Bowling Green and planned other events across the state.