To any visitor, the best days of this small, former steel-mill town nestled in the Ohio Valley would appear to be behind it.

Here, along pockmarked streets in the City of Murals, vast paintings of mill workers and other reminders of America’s manufacturing past adorn what remain of the facades of rundown brick buildings.

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.”

Mitt Romney was campaigning Monday afternoon across the state in Cincinnati, where he ratcheted up his rhetoric and criticized Santorum by name.

But in Steubenville, it appeared that the positive tone that Santorum was seeking to strike – at least, when it comes to his own views on social and economic issues, not necessarily when it comes to President Obama – was resonating with voters who said they had begun to tune out negative attacks.

Christina Duff, a 20-year-old sophomore at the Franciscan university, attended the event with her sister, Mary, 22, a hairdresser. Both said that they Santorum had won them over.

“I just really agreed with everything he said,” Christina Duff said. “Just from morals, especially to family being the foundation of everything.”

Seeing Santorum in person also made a difference to Kevin Nelles, a 24-year-old sales and marketing manager who works in Steubenville but lives across the Ohio River in Weirton, West Virginia.

“By seeing him speak live, I was able to hear his points on a lot of issues that don’t come up in national news,” said Nelles, who carried with him to the event his 6-month-old daughter, Magdalene. “I think the media kind of wants to pigeonhole him as a social conservative, and they don’t really want to talk about how many other things he has opinions on. But here I actually got to hear his opinions on energy, government, finance, things like that. And it was really helpful to hear him speak.”

Nelles — like many others interviewed — said that he had long been a supporter of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) but had since switched his support to Santorum.

“I don’t feel that Gingrich stands a chance at this point,” he said. “It’s not to say that I’m just going to vote for whoever is likely to win, but I want to throw my support behind someone that actually has a chance. And I don’t think Gingrich has a chance at this point — the way his campaign has developed; the way the press is treating him; the way he treats himself.”

Santorum has made small, working-class towns such as Steubenville a key part of his potential road to the White House. Over the past several days, he has attended local Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinners across Ohio and has honed and fine-tuned his campaign-trail rhetoric to play up his blue-collar appeal.

In an interview after one Lincoln Day dinner in the southeast Ohio town of Georgetown last Friday, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), who is remaining neutral in the presidential race, said that she believes Santorum “resonates with middle America because he is middle America.”

Set aside the fact that Santorum has reported millions of dollars in income as a consultant; in campaigns, perception is often reality. And Santorum has struck a nerve among the middle class in a way that the other presidential contenders, particularly Romney, appear to have been unable to do.

“You have to know what the values are of the community that you serve,” Schmidt said when asked about Santorum’s appeal.

“The middle class will decide this election,” she added. But she also noted that it’s more than just a matter of income: “These are good people that are pro-life, pro-gun and pro-family.”

Nelson, the woodshop manager, said that while he doesn’t believe Santorum will be able to single-handedly bring back manufacturing jobs, he will be able to make a difference because he understands the challenges facing the region.

“It’s a real kind of a working-man’s town, and unfortunately we’ve seen the fall of a lot of industry throughout this whole Ohio Valley,” Nelson said of Steubenville. “But it’s a small town. Good people live and work here. And we’re turning it around and trying to do what we can do. I’m not saying that any one man like the president can turn that around, but I think he can implement policies that would promote manufacturing to come back to our area.”

The Duff sisters, who have lived in the town their whole lives, sounded a similar note.

“Right now, it’s kind of suffering a little bit,” Mary Duff said of Steubenville. “As you can really tell, the economy is run down. We’ve lived here our whole lives, so we don’t know it in comparison to a whole bunch of other places. But it’s definitely run by the mills, and it’s become less so. That’s what’s the problem.”

Added Christina: “I think it’s the people that make the town. Growing up, we had an awesome community. And I loved growing up in Steubenville, just because of that.”

“It’s not rich, but ...” Mary said.

“Yeah, it’s not rich,” Christina agreed. “But it’s rich in people.”