WEST CHESTER, Ohio — The Grand Ole Pub in this Cincinnati suburb is a good place to find Republicans. It's not so easy, though, to find one who feels settled on, or even enthused about the party's current field of presidential candidates.
Patron Jim Goll sat near a portrait of conservative standard-bearer Ronald Reagan, and the walls are decorated with pictures of talk show hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly and other political figures. It seemed that Goll and other patrons couldn't see any of the current field joining the Republican icons on the pub wall.
"They've all got some points that I like," Goll said. "If I could take all the candidates and put them in a pot and mix them together, that would be awesome."
Ohio has been a swing state for decades, and recent polls indicate Republicans could take it back in 2012 after Barack Obama's 2008 win — Republican George W. Bush carried Ohio twice, as did Democrat Bill Clinton. But first Ohioans would have to rally around a common candidate.
Mixed feelings and indecision seem common across a swath of Republican-dominated suburbs that provide votes for Republican nominees — whom history says must win Ohio to win the general election. A recent statewide Quinnipiac University poll indicated support for Mitt Romney was at 24 percent, with "don't know" at 22 and Rick Perry at 21 and the rest scattered among the other candidates.
The region's Republican voters were credited with delivering Ohio — and clinching re-election — in 2004 for Bush. John McCain also ran well in the region in 2008, but shy of Bush's 2-to-1 margins.
Ohio plans to vote on March 6, the "Super Tuesday" when about a dozen or so states will hold primaries or caucuses. The challenge for Republican candidates is to generate enough enthusiasm out of the current malaise that they rally behind the Republican nominee. Otherwise, low turnout could turn the state toward Obama again.
Lori Viars, a social conservative activist in Warren County, a series of suburbs between Cincinnati and Dayton, is among those Republicans who predict Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, can't get the region's base out in sufficient numbers.
"I think he (Romney) is the only who one would be objectionable to my crowd, and I worry that because conservatives are split among the other candidates, Romney could win (the nomination) and then we could end up losing to Obama," said Viars, an anti-abortion leader for whom Romney's since-changed abortion rights position alienates her. "I definitely fear for our party."
Viars is still undecided, which she said is unusual for her at this stage.
When Perry got into the presidential race, Tracy Brewer was hoping that the Texas governor would sweep her off her political feet. More than a month later, she's still standing, and still undecided. Perry has stumbled in debates, and she opposes his failed attempt to require Texas girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer, or Texas's policy giving in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.
Brewer was dead set against Romney in 2008, but she's keeping an open mind for 2012 if he looks like the best candidate to defeat Obama.
The GOP-dominated southwest Ohio region has a substantial tea party movement, and many adherents say they support Ron Paul, the libertarian-minded Republican congressman.
Mike Wilson, leader of the Cincinnati tea party, isn't among them. He disagrees with Paul on foreign policy.
"Everybody in has strengths and weaknesses," said Wilson, who thinks Paul has a loyal base that will keep him in the running late into the race, and that it's too soon to crown candidates as front-runners. "I think the media are wrong if they take this as a two-person race."
He recalled that before the primaries began four years ago, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee were considered top contenders. Wilson this year had liked former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out, and he is among the growing number of people taking a fresh look at pizza magnate Herman Cain, who won a Florida straw poll and drew praise for debate performances.
At the Grand Ole Pub, co-owner Bill Langford likes Cain's business acumen, which he thinks is needed to deal with the nation's struggling economy, although he's not sure Cain can build enough support to win.
"Quite possibly, the person you like isn't electable, and you have to be pragmatic," Langford said.
Langford and wife Pat opened the restaurant-bar in a strip shopping center a year ago, and he said the economy has taken a toll on small businesses like his. They were busy last Friday night, though, with a number of tea party and Republican partisans in the crowd.
Three generations of the Keith family were at one table having burgers, sweet potato fries and other pub fare.
"We just have some serious flaws with the two front-runners (Romney and Perry)," said family patriarch Dan Keith, a pilot. "It's really tough; it's a toss-up."
"I think he's still got a lot of Democrat ideas in his head," chimed in son-in-law Jason Durbin about Perry, referring to Perry's former party affiliation.
Dan's wife Pat likes Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House. She suggested that a Cain-Gingrich combination could be good blend of business and government experience.
At the pub's bar, Rex Sowards, who owns a small vending company, said he is still sorting through the declared Republican candidates.
"I do we think we could do better," he said. "But it's early. Who knows? Maybe Romney will get in there and knock Obama out."1 comment on this story
Nursing her beer, Christy Dollison, a call center manager, saw unpleasant parallels to 2008, when the veteran candidate McCain outlasted the field that included Romney only to lose to Obama.
"I just see 2008 all over again. It's concerning with the shape the country is in," she said. "We got stuck with McCain last time, and we get stuck with Romney this time."
The picture near the bar reminds some of what they would like to see in a GOP nominee.
"We're all hankering for a Ronald Reagan," said Dan Keith. "And it's not going to happen."