- Associated Press - Monday, December 26, 2011

WEST CHESTER, Ohio — For “Anybody but Romney” Republicans in a key conservative region of Ohio, Newt Gingrich has been picking up support as an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.

The former House speaker has moved to the top in recent polling in Ohio, just as Republican presidential candidates prepare for the Jan. 3 caucuses in Iowa, followed closely by the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.

Ohio’s presidential primary is scheduled for March 6, one of the biggest prizes for Republicans among about a dozen states voting on “Super Tuesday.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hasn’t excited some of the party’s staunchest conservatives for reasons that include his past pro-choice stance and his enactment of a Massachusetts health-care plan that’s often compared to President Obama’s new national law.

Some conservatives had flirted with supporting Herman Cain, drawn to his business background and unconventional campaign style. But Mr. Cain suspended his campaign this month following accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior and a longtime extramarital affair. Mr. Cain’s decision and Mr. Gingrich’s performance in nationally televised debates helped some make up their minds.

“He’s sold me,” said Dan Keith, 61, of Hamilton. Keith and his wife, Pat, said they are convinced that Mr. Gingrich has the experience and savvy to be strong against Mr. Obama. “I can’t see anybody else coming onto the scene that we would go to.”

The Keiths said they were undecided when first interviewed three months ago.

“I think before, people liked the other candidates because they were an alternative to Romney. But I’m hearing more people who like Gingrich as Gingrich,” said Bill Langdon, co-owner of the Grand Ole Pub, a popular gathering spot for Republican partisans in West Chester.

Sandra Arno, of nearby Springdale, turned out for Mr. Cain’s visit to West Chester in November and liked what she heard. She was deciding between him and Mr. Gingrich before Mr. Cain stopped campaigning, and most recently was leaning toward the former speaker.

“I think they’re both very intelligent, and I think Newt will be good as the candidate,” Ms. Arno said.

Republican-dominated suburbs like this one — home of House Speaker John A. Boehner — just north of Cincinnati provide a stronghold of votes in a state that no Republican nominee has ever reached the White House without winning. Their enthusiastic turnout to vote for George W. Bush by 2-to-1 margins in 2004 is credited with delivering Ohio to clinch his re-election.

In Ohio, a series of Quinnipiac University polls tracked Mr. Gingrich’s rise from low single-digits to 36 percent between September and early December. Mr. Cain had fallen to 7 percent after leading the pack at 28 percent in October. The sexual harassment allegations against Mr. Cain surfaced in late October.

Lori Viars, a conservative activist and pro-life leader in Lebanon, predicted that a Romney nomination would keep some Christian evangelicals on the sidelines in November because of concern about his previous positions on issues, led by abortion. Some in her circles — Ms. Viars among them — might also hesitate over Mr. Gingrich’s personal history, which includes two divorces and acknowledged marital infidelity.

“Newt makes a lot of sense,” Ms. Viars said. “But everyone makes mistakes, and he certainly is right on a lot of issues.”

This region of Ohio is home to some of the nation’s first tea party groups, and a number of activists are loyal to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has attracted a band of followers with libertarian-minded calls to bring home U.S. troops and keep the government out of personal decisions.

Cincinnati tea party leader Mike Wilson, though, is “watching and waiting.”

Mr. Wilson’s favorite candidate was Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who dropped out in August. Mr. Wilson doesn’t share the worry about Mr. Romney becoming the nominee. He also said a respectable Iowa finish by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or Texas Gov. Rick Perry could give either of those conservative favorites some traction heading into the contests that follow.

Mr. Wilson said Mr. Romney can defeat Mr. Obama and would work effectively with a Republican-controlled House.

“I think we know who the ultimate opponent is — Barack Obama,” Mr. Wilson said. “With John Boehner as speaker, I think Romney will sign a lot of Republican legislation over the next four years.”

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