Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appealed for the support of working-class Americans in industrial Ohio on Wednesday, a day after narrowly avoiding a humiliating defeat by rival Rick Santorum in Romney's home state of Michigan.
Romney focused almost exclusively on the U.S. economy and attacks on President Barack Obama's leadership at his first campaign event after Tuesday's Michigan primary.
"I want to go to work for the American worker," Romney told the crowd of about 100 people at a rally at American Posts, a company that makes steel fence posts.
Ohio, one of 10 states to hold primaries or caucuses on "Super Tuesday" next week, is a politically divided state that will be crucial in the November elections, when the Republican nominee will face President Barack Obama.
After victories in Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday, Romney reclaimed front-runner status in the state-by-state race for the Republican nomination. But to solidify that standing - or avoid losing it - he must win Ohio over his chief rival: former Pennsylvania senator Santorum.
Romney scored an important victory over Santorum in Michigan's Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, but his margin was only 3 percentage points in the state where he grew up and where his father was governor in the 1960s.
The former Massachusetts governor also rolled to an easy victory in Arizona's primary, but all eyes had been on Michigan, where Santorum, known for his religious conservatism, posed an unexpectedly stiff challenge.
Santorum won about half of Michigan's 30 delegates with his strong second-place finish.
He claimed victory in the state and promised to keep fighting for the Republican nomination.
"We're doing battle, we'll be there (Ohio) a couple of times this week. We're going to be in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Washington State and Georgia - we're going to compete, and we're going to do exceptionally well on Super Tuesday," Santorum said on Fox News.
"We're going to show that we are the alternative if you want a conservative who's going to go up against Barack Obama."
Santorum was to spend Wednesday campaigning in Tennessee.
Tuesday's results were enough to ease pressing concerns about Romney's ability to win over the conservative Republican base and solidify his lead among Republicans.
But the slim margin of victory made clear that the party could face a long slog before anointing its presidential candidate. Republican leaders worry that an extended, acrimonious primary battle will damage the eventual nominee, and Romney's approval ratings have fallen as the race has heated up.
APPEALING TO THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT
Republicans are particularly concerned with Ohio, a swing state Republicans believe they must win to take the White House in November. Tuesday's primary in the diverse, populous state will also gauge the ability of both Romney and Santorum to draw a broad range of voters.
The fervently Roman Catholic Santorum has risen in polls by appealing to the religious right and sending a populist economic message tied to his working-class roots as the grandson of a coal miner.
He has led in nationwide opinion polls since winning contests in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado on February 7 and has been shifting his message away from divisive social issues to focus on the economy.
Exit polls on Tuesday showed Romney had strong support from wealthier voters and those over 65.
Santorum carried the most conservative voters, those who said the religious views of candidates were important and those who were less affluent and educated.
Romney is a former private equity executive who has stressed that his combination of experience in government and private business makes him the best candidate to lead a country still grappling with the aftermath of a recession.
But the Harvard-educated businessman, who has a personal fortune estimated at some $250 million, has struggled to connect with blue-collar voters. And his centrist record as governor of Massachusetts worries some conservatives.
He toured the Toledo factory after his remarks on Wednesday morning and even fired up one of the machines. "I gotta push a button," he joked as he told the media to step back. "That'll be my heavy-lift in terms of manufacturing."