- Associated Press - Sunday, January 31, 2016

CINCINNATI (AP) - With the Iowa caucuses Monday opening the voting in the Republican presidential race, some activists in a GOP stronghold region of Ohio are wondering what will be left of the large field when they get their turn.

“I’m hoping it’s small by the time it gets Ohio,” said Kennedy Copeland, president of the College Republicans at Xavier University. “It’s probably going to be at most five candidates. It would be awesome to be able to focus more on their plans.”

Several cities and townships just west, north and east of Cincinnati, forming a crescent around the city, comprise a solid base for Republicans. It’s a GOP stronghold in a swing state that history says the party must carry to win the White House. The Associated Press has been tracking efforts during the past six months by some key Republicans in the region to choose the candidate they will support ahead of the March 15 Ohio primary.

In recent weeks, there has been growing support for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the conservative firebrand considered likely to duel front-runner Donald Trump for first in Iowa.

Lori Viars of Warren County and Sue Hardenbergh of suburban Anderson Township were among some three dozen activists from around the state who made a joint announcement of support for Cruz three weeks ago, just after the Ohio Republican Party endorsed favorite son Gov. John Kasich. While state party leaders say the second-term governor enjoys high approval ratings and can deliver the pivotal state in November, conservatives say Cruz can fire up voters who were lukewarm over losing “establishment” nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney.

“Backing a slightly better candidate than the Democrat hasn’t worked,” explained Hardenbergh.

Viars said she’s been recruiting volunteers and quickly ran out of Cruz bumper stickers.

“He’s tapped into the conservatives in Ohio in a big way,” Viars said. “There are a few who have gone off with Trump. … We’re concerned about Trump because his track record is so sketchy.”

Warren County GOP Chairman Ray Warrick said, though, that “in my amateur opinion,” a decisive Trump victory in Iowa could torpedo Cruz’s chances.

“I’m hoping conservatives will turn out (in Iowa) and be persuasive for Cruz,” said Viars, a longtime anti-abortion activist.

Warrick said Cruz, Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former CEO Carly Fiorina all appeal to conservatives in the region looking for a “non-establishment” candidate, but that Cruz and Trump have the most backers.

“It certainly seems to me that Trump has a lot of support,” Warrick said.

Harry Prestanski, a veterans issues advocate in West Chester Township, suspects Trump’s decision to skip the Republican debate last week could cost him support in Iowa.

“I’m more than a little disappointed about Donald Trump not showing up,” said Prestanski, who’s still not certain of his choice. He likes Kasich, for supporting veterans’ causes and having broad experience, but questions whether he can build momentum in the primaries.

Copeland said some 15 young voters who attended a debate watch Thursday night didn’t miss Trump because other candidates didn’t spend so much time going back-and-forth with the outspoken front-runner.

“There was a lot of excitement that Trump wasn’t there, and we got a chance to hear more from the other candidates,” she said.

She said the group thought Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Cruz and “surprisingly,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, did particularly well. She considers Rubio her top choice at this point, saying he has addressed youth concerns such as student loan debt and has looked “presidential and polished.”

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Follow Dan Sewell at https://www.twitter.com/dansewell

For some of his other recent stories: https://bigstory.ap.org/content/dan-sewell

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