WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican presidential hopefuls are heading into next week’s “Super Tuesday” contests with different game plans but the same goal: find the most friendly terrain to make a stand.
As the state-by-state race goes national with 10 contests on Tuesday, the cost and scope of fighting on a coast-to-coast battlefield is forcing the four remaining Republican candidates to focus on states where they have the best chance to pull off a win.
Their contrasting strategies were clear on Wednesday, a day after Mitt Romney regained his shaky front-runner status with wins in the Arizona and Michigan primaries.
Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker whose hopes of rejuvenating his flagging campaign lie in the South, is treating Tuesday’s primary in his home state of Georgia as a make-or-break contest. He also is hoping to score well in Ohio, the day’s most significant prize, and the conservative southern states of Tennessee and Oklahoma.
Rick Santorum, now Romney’s chief rival, will challenge Gingrich in Tennessee and Oklahoma. He also will fight Romney in Ohio, a politically divided state that will be a key battleground in the November 6 election, when the eventual Republican nominee will face Democratic President Barack Obama.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul is focusing on Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota, states that will hold voter caucuses rather than primaries. Paul’s committed backers can make a difference in low-turnout contests in caucus states.
And Romney, who survived a near-disaster by pulling out a narrow win over Santorum in his home state of Michigan, has safe havens on Super Tuesday in Massachusetts, where he once was governor, and in Virginia, where he and Paul were the only candidates to collect enough voter signatures to get on the primary ballot.
Romney will visit North Dakota and Idaho on Thursday but will put much of his energy into Ohio, where he campaigned on Wednesday. He is unlikely to spend much time in the southern states where Santorum and Gingrich will battle, although Romney’s wife, Ann, is scheduled to be in Georgia on Thursday.
“You can’t go to every state anymore,” said a senior strategist for Romney. “Each (candidate) is going to go to their strengths. You don’t have to win everywhere. You want to win everywhere, but you don’t have to.”
Even so, Romney still must prove he can overcome his own weakness with the Republican Party’s most conservative voters, whose ambivalence has prevented him from taking command of the race.
For Romney, a victory in Ohio over Santorum - the latest hope of the party’s most conservative wing - would go a long way toward easing some of the doubts about the former Massachusetts governor.
“It’s really going to be all about Ohio,” Republican strategist Ford O‘Connell said of the Super Tuesday landscape. “If Romney does well in Ohio and over the next few weeks, it will get harder for the other candidates to make a plausible argument that they should be the nominee.”
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, led Ohio polls taken before Romney’s wins in Michigan and Arizona. On Wednesday his campaign reported raising $9 million in February - more than Santorum had raised during the entire race previously, and an amount that could allow him to compete with Romney’s well-financed campaign in the TV, radio and Internet ad wars.
Romney’s financial and organizational advantages should help him in Ohio and elsewhere as the pace of the campaign quickens, but the likelihood the four contenders will split the Super Tuesday states could leave the Republican race as muddled as ever.
‘HARD TO BE AN UNDERDOG’
“It’s hard to be an underdog,” Santorum said in a Wednesday e-mail plea for donations to help his Super Tuesday cause, before his campaign announced its February fundraising total.
“It’s much more difficult to run a grassroots, shoe-leather campaign where you actually talk to voters, than to throw millions of dollars on TV,” he said. “But now, with 10 states voting in the next week, we need those millions.”
The 10 states holding contests on Super Tuesday will award more than 400 delegates to the Republican nominating convention - more than have been awarded in the race so far - but the delegates will be granted proportionally, based on the results.
Georgia, with 76 delegates, and Ohio, with 66, are the biggest prizes on Super Tuesday.
As important as Ohio is to Romney, it could be even more so for Santorum, whose controversial statements recently on abortion, religion and other issues have raised questions about whether he can win a national election if nominated.
On Wednesday, Santorum aides rejected the idea that Ohio is a must-win state for their candidate,
“There are still plenty of big states down the road,” said John Brabender, a senior Santorum adviser.
“We can go into Ohio, we feel very confident that we’re going to do extremely well there,” Santorum told Fox News. “We’re going to show that we are the alternative if you want a conservative who’s going to go up against Barack Obama.”
For Gingrich, whose campaign has faltered since he won the South Carolina primary in January, a comeback is contingent on a win in Georgia, which he once represented in Congress.
“It’s central to the future of our campaign and we’re going to do everything we can to win here,” Gingrich said of Georgia, where he leads in the most recent polls.
Gingrich largely ignored the Michigan and Arizona primaries to focus on Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Santorum led by double-digits in a weekend poll in Tennessee.
“We hope to do very well in Oklahoma and Tennessee. We may surprise people in Idaho. We think we have a real fighting chance in Ohio,” Gingrich told reporters.
Gingrich plans to air a 30-minute speech on energy independence in several Ohio markets before Tuesday’s vote.
Paul, the libertarian with a loyal but small band of followers, is still looking for his first win. Since January his campaign has focused on states with caucuses, which often require more effort to attend - putting a premium on voter enthusiasm and organizational muscle.
In Virginia’s primary, Paul also will be the first of the Republican contenders to go one-on-one with Romney in a state.
Paul is not putting many resources into Virginia, but will appeal to Santorum and Gingrich supporters there to join him.
“I‘m going to try and get as many votes from Santorum, his people, and from Gingrich, and see what I can do,” Paul told CNN. “That’s our job as a campaign.”
Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Editing by David Lindsey and Doina Chiacu