- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

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. Yet 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 Mr. Santorum’s best chances of slowing Mr. Romney’s march toward the GOP nomination, the two men were drawing strength from different ideological wings of the party.

Mr. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, 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.

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

But while he 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 Mr. Romney among people without college degrees — a common measurement for the blue-collar vote.

Mr. Romney, the one-time Massachusetts governor, 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 Obama this fall, and was leading among voters saying their most important issue is the economy.

In two Southern states where Mr. Santorum was also hoping for strong performances, he was being buoyed by voters who said their choices were influenced by religion, exit polls showed.

In Oklahoma, Mr. Santorum built a 2-to-1 lead among those voters over both Mr. Romney and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who is struggling to keep his candidacy afloat. His lead over those two men among people in Tennessee looking for a religious match with their candidate was nearly as large.

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.

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.

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