Ohio AG DeWine switches from Romney to Santorum

JULIE CARR SMYTH Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine switched his endorsement from Mitt Romney to Rick Santorum on Friday in a defection he said was driven by his belief the former Pennsylvania senator can win the Republican presidential race.

DeWine, a former senator who led John McCain's Ohio presidential campaign in 2008, made the announcement in the company of Santorum at the Statehouse. He said he once felt Santorum could not overcome Romney's financial advantage but has decided he was wrong.

"To be elected president, you have to do more than tear down your opponents," DeWine said. "You have to give the American people a reason to vote for you, a reason to hope, a reason to believe that under your leadership, America will be better. Rick Santorum has done that. Sadly, Governor Romney has not."

DeWine had endorsed Romney in the Republican presidential race after his initial choice, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, withdrew.

The defection comes as a sting to Romney, though he still has some major names in Ohio Republican politics behind him heading into the March 6 primary. They include Sen. Rob Portman, Reps. Mike Turner and Jim Renacci, and the former senator and governor, George Voinovich.

Romney's camp tried to wave off the development.

"Nothing has changed," insisted John Sununu, a Romney adviser and former New Hampshire governor. "Attorneys general don't have that much of an organization."

He attributed the switch to an ad a pro-Romney group ran criticizing Santorum's vote in the Senate to give voting rights to felons once they complete their sentences or parole. DeWine also had cast a vote in favor of such rights.

"Mike DeWine was upset that issue was raised by the super PAC," Sununu said.

DeWine said Friday he had never seen the ad and it didn't impact his decision.

Ohio Democrats, through their spokesman Seth Bringman, issued a terse statement in response to DeWine's decision: "As is true for countless Ohioans, the more Mike DeWine learned about Mitt Romney, the less he liked."

DeWine successfully pushed for Ohio to join 25 other states in a lawsuit to block President Barack Obama's federal health care overhaul, claiming health insurance mandates are unconstitutional.

He served four terms in the House and two terms in the Senate before losing his re-election bid to Sherrod Brown in 2006. He won a close election for state attorney general in 2010.

Sununu was joined by Turner in a conference call aimed at countering Santorum's latest piece of good news. Turner said Santorum, who has lacked money and organization for much of the race, won't get on the ballot in all states and that raises questions about his "basic level of competence."

Santorum said he sees "a little symmetry" in DeWine following a 2006 loss with a subsequent win. Santorum also lost his election in 2006. He said pointing to that defeat is another false issue his critics are leveling against him.

"In fact, we're in the best position to win these key states like Pennsylvania and Ohio -- and even places like Wisconsin and Michigan, we can be very, very competitive," he said. "If we can win the industrial Midwest, from Pennsylvania through Wisconsin and Iowa and Missouri, Barack Obama's not going to be the next president of the United States. That's what the folks in the Republican Party have to focus on."

A Quinnipiac University poll out last week found Santorum edging ahead of Romney in the political battleground state, but with half the state's GOP voters indicating they may yet change their minds. No Republican nominee has reached the White House without winning Ohio.

Coming off a sweep in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri last week, Santorum had trailed far behind Romney in Ohio just a month ago.

After false starts backing former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, neither of whom joined the race, Ohio Gov. John Kasich has said he doesn't intend to make any presidential endorsements. Santorum said he and the governor are friends, but he does not expect his endorsement.

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Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Washington and Steve Peoples in Mason, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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