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."
Mitt Romney hasn't excited some of the party's staunchest conservatives for reasons that include his past support of abortion rights and enactment of a Massachusetts health care plan that's often compared to President Barack Obama's overhaul.
Some conservatives had flirted with supporting Herman Cain, drawn to his business background and unconventional campaign style. But Cain suspended his campaign this month following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior and a longtime extramarital affair. Cain's decision and 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 Gingrich has the experience and savvy to be strong against 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. Langdon had been interested in Cain, but doubted whether Cain could win the presidential nomination.
Gingrich is now his choice. "He's the guy they think can go toe-to-toe with the president," Langdon said.
Sandra Arno, of nearby Springdale, turned out for Cain's visit to West Chester in November and liked what she heard. She was deciding between him and Gingrich before 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," Arno said.
Republican-dominated suburbs like this one — home of House Speaker John Boehner — just north of Cincinnati provide a stronghold of votes in a state that no GOP 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. It's important for the Republican nominee to be able to attract big numbers in GOP-oriented suburban and rural regions to offset Democratic urban bastions led by Cleveland.
Ohio could be more crucial to Gingrich than some of his rivals because the former House speaker failed to qualify for Virginia's primary ballot. Gingrich's campaign has said he will pursue an aggressive write-in campaign in Virginia, although state law prohibits write-ins on primary ballots.
The state party said over the weekend that both Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry had failed to submit the required 10,000 signatures to appear on the March 6 ballot. Failing to get on the ballot in Virginia, where Gingrich lives, underscores the difficulty first-time national candidates have in preparing for the long haul of a presidential campaign.
In Ohio, a series of Quinnipiac University polls tracked Gingrich's rise from low single-digits to 36 percent between September and early December. Cain had fallen to 7 percent after leading the pack at 28 percent in October. The sexual harassment allegations against Cain surfaced in late October.
Lori Viars, a conservative activist and anti-abortion 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 crowd — Viars is among them — might also hesitate over Gingrich's personal history, which includes two divorces and acknowledged marital infidelity.
"Newt makes a lot of sense," Viars said. "But everyone makes mistakes, and he certainly is right on a lot of issues."
Several of those who have come around to Gingrich say they're not put off by his personal past.
"Would I want him as marriage counselor? No," said Keith. "But that's not what we're electing."
Keith's wife thinks Gingrich's candidacy is on firmer ground because he's already undergone years of scrutiny.
"They've already raked him over the coals pretty good," Pat Keith said.
Other Republican activists say it's still too soon to pick a candidate in a state where there has been little campaigning, and with the GOP field likely to be smaller by the time of Ohio's primary in March.
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."
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Wilson's favorite candidate was Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who dropped out in August. Wilson doesn't share the worry about 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.
Wilson said Romney can defeat Obama and would work with a Republican-controlled House, should it stay in GOP hands.
"I think we know who the ultimate opponent is — Barack Obama," Wilson said. "With John Boehner as speaker, I think Romney will sign a lot of Republican legislation over the next four years."