Rick Santorum leaves the American Legion after speaking in Westerville, Ohio. (Eric Gay/AP)
CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio--Rick Santorum, who has become a legitimate underdog challenger to longtime front-runner Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, made his final pitch to Ohio voters Monday, calling Romney "the weakest candidate" for championing a state mandate to buy health insurance while he was governor of Massachusetts.
"He won't be able to ignore and avoid answering questions in the fall, and as a result, he will be the weakest candidate we could possibly put forward on the most important issue of the day," Santorum told supporters at his final rally here the night before Ohioans join Republicans in nine other states on Super Tuesday.
"Why would we put someone up who is uniquely unqualified to take him on in this issue? You don't think it will be used against him? You don't think we will hear this? It will be a drumbeat," he told supporters earlier Monday afternoon in Columbus. "It will take an issue where we're on the offensive and turn it into a liability. I don't care how much money he has. Don't let that happen, Ohio."
Romney's campaign spokesman, Ryan Williams, who has been trailing Santorum at events in Ohio for the past few days, responded to Santorum's latest line of attack, calling it a "desperate attempt by Senator Santorum to avoid a discussion about his flailing campaign and his loss in five straight states. Governor Romney has been consistent in opposing a federal mandate."
For the past week, Santorum has increased the level of criticism aimed at Romney, taking his message through Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, where he has argued that Romney would fail to garner enough support from the party base to beat Obama if he becomes nominee.
"Conservatives will not trust him, will not rally around him through this primary season," Santorum told reporters during a conference call Monday, seizing on recent news reports that as late as 2009, Romney appeared to uphold the Massachusetts government health care plan he signed into law as a model for a federal program.
On the stump, Santorum has also started to make bold predictions about his chances for success, a shift from a candidate who traditionally has avoided asserting himself as an inevitable nominee. In the past, if reporters asked Santorum if he thought he would win an upcoming contest, he would often shrug and respond by saying, "We'll see," or "I'm not a pollster." But on the night before Super Tuesday, Santorum oozed with confidence.
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