In flyover campaign, Super Tuesday voters are delegate-rich but candidate-poor: Character Sketch

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MIAMISBURG, Ohio--Sixty-year-old, bearded Don Kanipe is a throwback to a bygone political era: all the way back to January's Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Like voters in those opening-gun contests, Kanipe actually expects to see the presidential candidates in person, which is why he was waiting Monday morning to hear Rick Santorum at the Dayton Christian School.

"I like to see them give a speech--and talk about what they want to do as president," said Kanipe, a laid-off computer programmer from Beavercreek. "It's so much better than seeing them on TV where they have to talk about what the media wants them to talk about." Having already seen Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich speak in the Dayton area during the past three weeks, Kanipe listened carefully as Santorum begged Ohio voters not to be swayed by "the polls and all the media hype about what it's about." Kanipe is following his own inner direction rather than the knotted Ohio polls that show Romney and Santorum vying for the lead--he will be opting for Gingrich in the state's Republican primary.

With 10 states voting today (and voters in another eight states chiming in later this month), we have reached the Flyover Stage of Campaign 2012. Even Ohio, the most closely watched Super Tuesday contest, has become more of a drop-by state than the scene of intense personal political combat. On Sunday, just two days before the primary, none of the four Republican candidates held a public event in Ohio. Even the TV ads--mostly boosting Romney or bashing Santorum on Romney's behalf--have only been on the air in Ohio for about a week. As Mike Dawson, a veteran Ohio GOP political consultant who is on the sidelines in the primary race, put it, "It's hard to figure out a primary if it just lasts for six or seven days."

It is also hard to make a voting decision if you can't see all the candidates without chartering a plane. The once-continuous TV debates are suddenly available only in reruns. As the pace of the nomination fight picks up and the battleground switches to major industrial states like Ohio and Illinois (March 20), the high-information voter is fast becoming an endangered species. From here on, personal campaigning is no longer designed to sway individual voters. Rather, the only purposes of candidate speeches and rallies are to provide scenic backdrops and a few sound bites for TV news coverage. Although reporters love to interview voters at candidate appearances, such up-close Super Tuesday Republicans are about as typical as those who like to translate campaign brochures into classical Greek.

As a result, voting in the Ohio primary is apt to be shaped by fleeting impressions of the candidates. Even the Ohio TV commercials have none of the intellectual heft (confession: I'm exaggerating to make a point) of the air wars during, say, the South Carolina primary. On the ABC affiliate (WSYX) in Columbus, only two political spots were broadcast Monday during the first 45 minutes of Good Morning America. Both were identical Romney campaign ads slamming Santorum as "just another Washington insider."

Outgunned and desperately needing an Ohio victory, Santorum is devoting an increasing portion of his speeches to lamenting his predicament. Talking to several hundred voters and school children in Miamisburg on Monday morning, a fiery Santorum said, "Outspent sometimes six-, seven -, eight-to-one as we are here in the state of Ohio, by all rights, we shouldn't be in this race. If I had the opportunity to have a six-to-one spending advantage, given where we are in this race, this race wouldn't be close. But that's not how it is." This is presidential politics as a morality play--with Santorum playing the role of John Henry, the steel-driving man, up against the steam-powered drill of Romney's money.

Little of this has anything to do with the burdens that will face the man whose left hand will be on the Bible next Jan. 20 as Chief Justice John Roberts administers the inaugural oath. So many issues that will bedevil the next president have almost never come up on the campaign trail, from how to stabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan to how to safeguard America from any ripple effects from a collapse in the euro. Even after hearing dozens of Romney and Santorum speeches, I have no idea how either candidate would go about staffing the White House or the Cabinet.

The fall campaign, of course, will give the voters a lengthy opportunity to learn about and to scrutinize the Republican presidential nominee. But whether that candidate is Romney (most likely) or Santorum or Gingrich or someone else, it is a safe bet that there will be things that Republicans wished they knew about him back in March when they voted.

That is the flaw built into the presidential nomination system: Unless you pay attention early or live in the right state (insert plug here for Des Moines real estate), the campaign is little more than a blur by the time you get to pick your favorite.

Walter Shapiro, who is covering his ninth presidential campaign, writes the "Character Sketch" column for Yahoo News, examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates. He is also a special correspondent for the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.

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