ZANESVILLE, OH — As Republicans prepare to hit the polls in 11 states to choose their presidential nominee, each candidates’ appeal is being stripped down to its absolute core. Newt Gingrich appeals to the head. Rick Santorum to the heart. And Mitt Romney to voters’ desire to beat President Obama.
The two leading anti-Romneys — Santorum and Gingrich — delivered dueling speeches to Ohio Republicans for a fundraising dinner at Bowling Green University on Saturday, giving voters a unique chance to hear their final messages back to back.
Gingrich, who famously said on the trail that he “thinks grandiose thoughts,” has embraced that characterization by pushing out another large-scale, quickly assembled policy goal: $2.50-a-gallon gas. He devoted nearly his entire speech to his new initiative, which would consist of opening up federal lands to drilling, replacing the EPA with an “Environmental Solutions Agency” and generally boosting oil and gas at all times.
“Would you like $10 a gallon and algae?” he told the audience, referring to a bioefuel researchprogram, “or would you like $2.50 a gallon and drilling?”
The rewards of implementing his idea, like those of a bustling moon hub for tourism and commerce, would be vast: Gingrich estimated Americans would see a whopping $16 trillion to $18 trillion in federal tax revenue from the energy explosion, wiping out the national debt in one fell swoop.
“I believe we can get well below $2 a gallon,” he said, upping his boast. “It was at $1.13 when I was speaker. It was $1.89 when Barack Obama was sworn in.”
Economists are highly skeptical of any president’s ability to influence oil prices, which are driven by complex market forces that often exist beyond government control. The low gas prices at the start of Obama’s first term, for example, were mostly due to an economic collapse that sharply reduced global demand.
Gingrich assured the crowd that he’ll be able to use his extensive knowledge to unmask the White House’s “incompetent liberalism.”
“In order to debate Barack Obama, I have to become the nominee,” he said.
“Santorum has inspiration, but Gingrich has solutions,” Herald, a public policy Ph.D., argued. “He has big innovative ideas and the ability to articulate them.”
Westhoeven said he got “goosebumps” from Santorum’s talk about the nation’s values. He saw little distinction between talking about social issues and the economy.
“It’s important to be strong on family and values,” he said. “Poverty rates are much higher in single-parent households, but no one will talk about it because we’ve gotten so PC.”
Even Santorum’s attacks on Romney come from a moral perspective. At the same rally, Santorum said footage and op-eds from 2009 in which Romney supported a health care mandate demonstrate the former Massachusetts governor’s lack of honesty and character.
“We need a president and a nominee we can trust,” Santorum said. “Our honor is on the line.”
In addition to the nation’s moralizer in chief, Santorum is pitching himself as an underdog. He begins almost all his speeches with a riff on how unlikely his surge seemed just a couple of months ago, and unfailingly mentions Romney’s negative ads and the big money behind them. The GOP needs someone who will “not just pound their opponent into the ground, but lift up our country,” he said.
Romney, for his part, is returning to the core trait that’s made him the frontrunner since the early days of the race: electability. His campaign opened up a new front against Santorum this week, mocking his inability to clear low hurdles like getting on the ballot in Virginia or finding delegates for every district up for grabs in Ohio. The message is clear: Only Romney has a real presidential operation capable of going toe to toe with Obama.
After mixing it up with his opponents in recent contests, Romney has returned to his earlier strategy, focusing his attack lines on Obama and leaving his surrogates to deal with his GOP rivals. At his big election-eve rally in Zanesville, Ohio, Monday night, Romney delivered a truncated version of his stump speech — without alluding to Santorum or Gingrich even indirectly.
“I believe the president is leading this country on a path that would change the very nature of this country,” he said. “This man is out of ideas, he’s out of excuses, and in 2012 he’s going to be out of office.” In another oft-used attack line, he said “the president wants to turn us into something that’s more European than America.”
For Romney, who awkwardly waded into culture war territory in recent weeks to pile on the White House over regulations prohibiting religious employers from denying birth control coverage to workers, he’s closing out back in his comfort zone: the economy. Apart from a brief wade into tough-talking on foreign policy, he painted the same miserable image of struggling Americans that he has through nearly a year of campaigning.
“This is an election about liberty and economic freedom,” he said. “This is a question about whether the stresses on families will be alleviated, where you have a mom working a day shift and a dad working a night shift.”
h/t: Benjy Sarlin at TPM