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In Ohio, Republicans try to stick to economic issues

By John Whitesides

CHILLICOTHE, Ohio (Reuters) - After a week in which the race for the Republican presidential nomination often was a forum for divisive social and religious issues, the campaign turned Friday toward jobs and the economy, key issues in the upcoming "Super Tuesday" contests.

Rick Santorum, fighting to stay within sight of Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and score a game-changing victory in Ohio's primary on Tuesday, stuck mostly to calls for less government regulation and lower taxes in making his pitch to Ohio manufacturers and entrepreneurs.

"We cannot have an economy that's flourishing when government is micro-managing them and adding cost after cost after cost," Santorum said at a rally.

In Bellevue, Washington, Romney struck a similar economic theme before enthusiastic crowds.

He accused Democratic President Barack Obama of "turning us into a European-type welfare society where people feel entitled to what their neighbor has."

It was familiar campaign rhetoric that has taken on new urgency in the days before Tuesday's contests in 10 states that could alter the direction of the race - particularly if Santorum is able to energize enough working-class conservatives to hold on to what polls say is a slim lead in Ohio.

That state is the big prize in Tuesday's contests because it is a politically divided state that will be a critical battleground in the November 6 presidential election, when Obama will face the eventual Republican nominee.

After wins in Arizona and Michigan last week, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, could take a step toward locking down the nomination if he can win Ohio and do well in several other Super Tuesday states.

But even as his rocky campaign seems to have found some footing, doubts about his ability to defeat Obama persist.

In a Sunday column released in advance, conservative commentator George Will said that neither Romney nor Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, "seems likely to be elected."

In casting the presidential race as a lost cause for Republicans, Will argued that conservative voters should focus on electing like-minded candidates to the U.S. House and Senate.

Another conservative commentator, Charles Krauthammer, wrote in the National Post that although Tuesday's contests could "scramble the deck," Romney is likely to remain the "slow, steady, unspectacular (and) weak front-runner in an even weaker field."

Krauthammer, echoing other conservatives, said Santorum had wasted a golden opportunity to deal Romney's campaign a fatal blow in Michigan by putting divisive social and religious issues on center stage.

Before the Michigan primary, Santorum affirmed his previous statements that contraceptives harm society by encouraging promiscuity. He also wandered from his working-class economic message to say that a 1960 speech by President John F. Kennedy emphasizing the separation of church and state made him want to "throw up."

Santorum also called Obama a "snob" for urging all youths to pursue higher education.

'MAKE A STATEMENT'

This week, Santorum largely put his focus back onto jobs and the nation's struggling economy.

However, in questioning Romney's conservative credentials on Friday, Santorum referred to a gaffe by Romney the previous day.

Romney initially told a reporter that he opposed a Republican bill to block an Obama policy that requires insurers to cover contraceptives. He then backtracked, saying he had misunderstood the question.

Santorum suggested Friday that Romney's first answer was what Romney really believed, then urged Ohio voters to view him as the true conservative in the Republican race, which also includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

"You have a chance to make a statement, that we want someone who is a conservative in their heart and soul and mind," Santorum said. "I'm a conservative across the board. According to the media, I can't win. I would argue a conservative across the board ... is the only way to win."

He reminded the crowd he was the son of a coal miner and contrasted his background with that of Romney, the wealthy son of a former auto executive and Michigan governor and the favorite of the Republican Party's establishment.

"We're running against the big boys," Santorum said.

SOCIAL ISSUES STILL SHADOW RACE

While Santorum eased his commentary on social issues, it was becoming clear that the Republican Party will have to continue to address such matters as the campaign season unfolds.

Democrats are signaling that they will make women's rights - a subject fueled by Santorum's comments last month opposing contraception and military women in combat roles - a focus of attacks on Republicans.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has released a video ad accusing Republicans of launching "an assault on women's health and freedom."

The ad cites an all-male congressional hearing called by Republicans to discuss birth control, and a series of anti-abortion bills in state legislatures.

Meanwhile, the flap over Obama's plan for insurers to cover contraception continued to hover over the Republican campaign.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh grabbed attention this week while criticizing Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, who testified last week before a House panel reviewing Obama's plan to require health insurance plans to cover contraception. Religion-affiliated groups say the plan is an infringement on their religious liberty.

Limbaugh, who earlier called Fluke a "slut," suggested Thursday that in exchange for contraception coverage she should record sex tapes and publicize them.

The radio host was condemned by Democrats and some Republicans on Friday. A spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner called Limbaugh's comments "inappropriate" in a statement that also criticized Democrats for using the issue to raise funds for the presidential election.

And on the campaign trail, Santorum weighed in with a rare criticism of Limbaugh by a prominent Republican, telling CNN that Limbaugh was an "entertainer" who was "being absurd."

Late Friday, Romney told NBC that Limbaugh's remarks were "not the language I would have used. I'm focusing on the issues I think are important."

(Additional reporting by Sam Youngman in Bellevue, Washington, and Cleveland; Editing by David Lindsey and Stacey Joyce)

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