Shuttered shopfronts outnumber open ones. Boarded-up homes are a reminder of the town’s precipitous decline in population over the past few decades. And the most visible landmark as one enters the town driving west from nearby Pittsburgh is an old, rusted metal truss bridge.
For Rick Santorum, small towns like Steubenville aren’t about the past. They’re the very towns that will determine his political future.
With an eye toward a strong Super Tuesday showing in Ohio early next month, Santorum brought his surging campaign to a small restaurant here Monday afternoon and delivered a rousing stump speech to a crowd of about 500 people.
In the audience were supporters both old and young – many of the latter were students from the nearby Franciscan University of Steubenville, a conservative Catholic institution that is an influential presence in the town.
It was no accident that the former Pennsylvania senator and GOP White House hopeful had come here: Steubenville is home to precisely the combination of religious conservatives and blue-collar Rust Belt voters that Santorum is hoping will lead him to victory on Super Tuesday and beyond.
In remarks and a question-and-answer session lasting longer than an hour, Santorum renewed his blistering campaign-trail critique of President Obama’s leadership on economic, social and foreign policy issues.
He talked about his Pennsylvania roots and cast himself as a candidate who understands what the struggling residents of this small town are going through, someone who “has a message that is your message.”
And most notably, he sought to take the higher ground when it comes to the tone of the campaign, blasting his GOP rivals for engaging in “the equivalent of mud wrestling.”
Interviews with attendees after the event suggested that both the message and the messenger had struck a chord.
“I think he really speaks the language of the people here, and they can understand him,” said Mike Nelson, a 49-year-old woodshop manager from nearby Bloomingdale. “Like he said, Ohio is part of western Pennsylvania in his mind. We kind of feel that way, too.”
Despite Santorum’s years spent representing Pennsylvania in the Senate, several of his supporters here said they viewed him as a kind of political outsider – in large part because of his Rust Belt background but also because of the fact that he would go out of his way to campaign in a small, economically depressed town, they said.
“Just his showing up in Steubenville, Ohio, tells me that there’s something,” Nelson said. “I mean, he could’ve picked Marietta, any other big town. But coming to a small town like this and only meeting with 500 of us here, I just feel like he’s really trying. And by his genuine — the way he’s speaking — I just think he’s really trying to reach the average American.”