Rick Santorum faced a crucial test Tuesday in Ohio, where he's drawing upon his working-class background and underdog image to try to stop Mitt Romney from scoring a pivotal victory in a 10-state round of voting.
An unapologetic social conservative, Santorum has cast the race in biblical terms: He's David vs. Romney's Goliath. Even that "is probably a little bit of an understatement," Santorum said Monday.
The former senator from neighboring Pennsylvania has a shell of a campaign in Ohio, with no state headquarters and a bare-bones staff. In Romney he faces a challenger who enjoys a massive cash advantage and a political machine that's produced high-stakes victories in other states when his front-runner status was in doubt.
Santorum expected to be competitive in several states _ Tennessee, Oklahoma and Georgia among them. But Ohio voters, perhaps more than any others among the Super Tuesday voting, may shape the fate of his campaign.
A Santorum victory could reshuffle the Republican contest, sending a powerful message that Romney's grasp on his party's nomination is by no means assured. A loss in Ohio, where Santorum has devoted much of his time and resources, may have lasting consequences.
Santorum will spend Tuesday night watching returns in Steubenville, an eastern Ohio town just a 90-minute drive from his own Pennsylvania hometown.
Earlier in the day, he delivered an in-person address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual conference in Washington. He immediately criticized Tuesday's offer by the U.S., European countries, Russia and China to resume talks with Iran on its suspected nuclear weapons program, calling it "another appeasement, another delay, another opportunity for them to go forward while we talk."
Campaigning in Ohio on Monday, Santorum largely set aside his aggressive social agenda and focused on his plan to revitalize the nation's manufacturing sector and reminded voters across the state about his family's blue-collar roots. But as public polls showed a tightening race, Santorum's team also sought to lower expectations.
"This fight will continue and it's going to go on for a long time after this," a Santorum supporter, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, said. "We're going to fight state to state. I think Rick is going to win ... but it's going to be a close race."