published Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Rick Santorum draws conservatives in Ohio GOP contest

In this Jan. 3, 2012, file photo Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, seen with his Karen, left, addresses supporters at his Iowa caucus victory party in Johnston, Iowa. GOP primary voters have spent the past six weeks lurching toward one candidate and then another in an exercise of political soul-searching that appears far from settled. The next contests, in Arizona and Michigan, aren't until Feb. 28; the party with a reputation for order may have it sorted out after March 6, when 10 states get their say. But that would break sharply with this race's tendency toward uncertainty. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
In this Jan. 3, 2012, file photo Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, seen with his Karen, left, addresses supporters at his Iowa caucus victory party in Johnston, Iowa. GOP primary voters have spent the past six weeks lurching toward one candidate and then another in an exercise of political soul-searching that appears far from settled. The next contests, in Arizona and Michigan, aren't until Feb. 28; the party with a reputation for order may have it sorted out after March 6, when 10 states get their say. But that would break sharply with this race's tendency toward uncertainty. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Rick Santorum was drawing strong support Tuesday from the most conservative voters in Ohio's Republican presidential primary, according to early results of an exit poll of voters. But despite targeting the state's blue-collar voters, they were giving him only a slender lead over rival Mitt Romney, the survey was showing.

Ohio was the most closely watched among the 10 states holding Super Tuesday presidential contests. With many viewing the state as one of Santorum's best chances of slowing Romney's march toward the GOP nomination, the two men were drawing strength from different wings of the party.

Santorum was doing best among Ohio Republicans considering themselves very conservative, especially on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. He was also doing well with born-again and evangelical voters and with people saying it was very important that they share religious beliefs with their chosen candidate.

But while Santorum spent much of his campaign seeking to cement bonds with working-class voters by citing his upbringing in Pennsylvania coal country and stressing U.S. manufacturing, he had only a tiny lead over Romney among people without college degrees — a common measurement for the blue-collar vote.

Romney was doing strongly with less conservative voters in Ohio. He was also capturing a majority of those saying they want a candidate who can defeat President Barack Obama this fall, and was leading among voters saying their most important issue is the economy.

Ohio is seen as important to Santorum's chances of slowing Romney's march toward the GOP nomination.

Santorum had more than a 2-1 lead among the state's voters who say a candidate's religious beliefs were a big factor in their vote.

In Georgia, an exit poll of GOP voters there shows the victory there by Newt Gingrich, who represented the state in Congress for two decades, was propelled by people saying the former speaker's ties to the state were important.

Gingrich was winning around three-fourths of the votes of Georgia Republicans saying his relationship to the state affected their vote, according to early results from the survey.

Around 6 in 10 said that mattered little to them, and those voters were divided roughly evenly among Gingrich, Romney and Santorum.

In Vermont, Romney was doing strongly among rank-and-file Republicans. Texas Rep. Ron Paul was doing well among the 4 in 10 independent voters.

In Virginia, where only Romney and Paul were on the ballot, Romney was doing strongly across most categories of voters.

In Ohio, Republicans were overwhelmingly upset with the federal government and deeply worried about the direction of the national economy, according to preliminary exit poll figures.

Nearly 9 in 10 Ohio Republicans said they were dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working, including almost 4 in 10 who said they were very unhappy about it.

In addition, practically every Ohio GOP voter said he or she is nervous about where the nation's economy seems headed over the next few years, including about three-quarters who said they are very worried.

While almost two-thirds of the state's voters said they are conservative, more said their views are conservative on fiscal issues like taxes than on social issues such as abortion.

Exit polls were conducted in seven of the 10 states voting Tuesday, sampling groups of GOP voters ranging from the most moderate in Vermont and Massachusetts to the most conservative and religious in Oklahoma and Tennessee.

On two subjects, voters in each of the states voting Tuesday had the same view.

Given a choice of four issues, Republicans in every state named the economy as the one that most concerns them. Given four qualities to look for in a candidate, the one cited most often was an ability to defeat President Barack Obama in November's general election.

Seven in 10 Tennessee voters consider themselves to be born-again or evangelical Christians, more than any state surveyed so far in this year's GOP presidential voting. About three-fourths of Tennessee voters said it was very important that a candidate share their religious beliefs.

Of the state's voting Tuesday, Massachusetts had the smallest share of born-again or evangelical voters, fewer than 1 in 5.

In Virginia, where only Romney and Paul were on Tuesday's ballot, about 1 in 3 voters said they would have supported a different candidate if others had also been listed.

Only in Georgia and Oklahoma did a majority say Tuesday that they voted for their candidate because they strongly supported him. In the other five states, most voters said they had reservations about their contender or voted for him because they disliked the other choices.

The Ohio survey was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left 40 selected polling places in the state. The Ohio poll involved interviews with 2,702 voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Edison Research also conducted interviews at randomly chosen polling places in Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

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