PERRYSBURG, Ohio — Even on primary day in Michigan, where he lost narrowly, Rick Santorumdetoured into neighboring Ohio on Tuesday with an eye on an important state that votes next week on Super Tuesday.
Addressing an audience of several hundred in this town outside Toledo, Mr. Santorum covered a lot of ground: taxes, manufacturing, energy. At one point, he even tapped a black rock on the lectern to make a point about oil trapped in shale. “This rock leaches oil,” he said, accusing President Obama of delaying aggressive energy exploration.
But what really excited the audience was Mr. Santorum’s appeal on social issues, including a revival of his recent salvos on college education and the separation of church and state.
The voters’ reaction demonstrates Mr. Santorum’s challenge in the days ahead: He needs to keep the excitement in his base of social conservatives — the evangelicals, anti-abortion activists and Tea Party members who support him fervently — but he may not be able to win without expanding that base.
In Ohio, as in Michigan and elsewhere in the Rust Belt, the key to doing so probably lies in more focus on an economic message and a direct appeal to voters hit hard by the economic downturn.
Despite the loss in Michigan, the view inside the Santorum campaign is that he succeeded just by forcing Mitt Romney to sweat so much in his native state, spending dollars that might have been directed to Super Tuesday states. “Our goal was to make this a two-person race and we’ve done that,” said John Brabender, a top strategist for Mr. Santorum. “It’s a race that no one thought would be competitive and we’re walking away with a lot of delegates.”
His aides argue that Mr. Santorum has begun to address the economy more directly, as he did at the Detroit Economic Club and before a Chamber of Commerce audience. His plan to revive manufacturing was aimed squarely at blue-collar voters with whom he believes he has an advantage, given his roots in a steel town in western Pennsylvania.
“In Ohio the issues are always jobs — energy, jobs and manufacturing,” said Mike DeWine, the state’s attorney general, who recently switched his endorsement to Mr. Santorum from Mr. Romney.
“He hit that very strong today. That’s a perfect message for Ohio,” Mr. DeWine added, after campaigning with him in Perrysburg.
But, as The Wall Street Journal’s conservative-friendly editorial page noted this month: “Mr. Santorum often gives the impression that he views the economy as a secondary issue, something he’ll get to after he saves the traditional family.”
Mr. Santorum’s speech on Tuesday night — not much of a concession speech — could be seen as a road map of how he might adjust his candidacy now. In Michigan, he veered off into controversial positions that may have alienated some voters, particularly women, and he devoted part of his speech to his mother and wife. He said that both are strong women who balanced professional careers and motherhood, perhaps an attempt to quell some of the anger that arose recently over passages in his 2005 book that took working mothers to task for not staying home.
He also addressed the economy.
"“In Ohio the issues are always jobs — energy, jobs and manufacturing.”"
Mr. Romney, who has made his business acumen the centerpiece of his campaign, senses that the economy, which voters say is their most important issue, is a major Santorum weakness. On Tuesday he called him “an economic lightweight.”
Mr. Santorum’s passion in his campaign speeches is reserved for what he calls economic freedom — from regulations and an intrusive government. That inevitably leads him to discuss President Obama and his health care law, a topic that gets Mr. Santorum’s blood boiling, and that of his listeners.
His biggest applause lines are often his attacks on the president and his portrayal of Mr. Obama as an elitist, someone who “knows better than you” how to spend your money — a portrayal that often fuels a sense of class warfare.
On the eve of Tuesday’s primary, Mr. Santorum held a rally at a Christian academy in Kalamazoo, Mich., that had the feel of a revival meeting, especially as he railed against the president.
But Mr. Santorum was surely preaching to the converted. His loss in Michigan raises the possibility that he has hit a ceiling with Republican primary voters; he may even have damaged himself with some by a string of controversial comments, particularly his assertion that President Obama is a “snob” for advocating that every American have access to a college education.
Even some high-profile Republicans who have stayed neutral in the race noted that going to college had long been part of the American dream.
In some speeches, Mr. Santorum has portrayed an America in decline. He has been panned by some conservative pundits.
In a column this month in The New York Post, John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary Magazine, called Mr. Santorum a “sourpuss.”
“The former Pennsylvania senator looks like he swallowed a lemon — and he acts like America is the lemon he swallowed,” he wrote. “There is no way that a man who expresses such a dark view of the American national character can win the presidency.”
But Mr. Santorum has proven, if nothing else, that he will continue in this Republican nominating battle. The question is whether people will see him as a “sourpuss,” or will see something else — an alternative to Mr. Romney.
“The thing I’ve seen in Ohio in the last three or four months, they didn’t know Santorum,” Mr. DeWine said. “People would come up to me and say, ‘I like that Santorum guy. I saw him at a debate.’ I think what Rick has going for him, the more people see him the more they like him. He wears on people well.”
Trip Gabriel reported from Perrysburg, and Katharine Q. Seelye from Grand Rapids, Mich.