COLUMBUS, OHIO — Voters at Super Tuesday precincts drew a composite sketch, of sorts, of the Republican candidate they'd most like to have to challenge President Barack Obama in the fall. He'd possess Mitt Romney's economic cred, Rick Santorum's heartfelt conservatism and Newt Gingrich's intellect.
Or, he would just be Ronald Reagan instead.
Not everyone who came out to churches, schools and rec centers was brimming with confidence about Republican chances once the party has its nominee. In a bruising campaign pocked with attack ads, the flaws of the hopefuls were in stark relief.
Robert G. Reed, 76, of Anderson Township in suburban Cincinnati, summed up the minuses as he sees them, practically in one breath: "Romney is too rich, Santorum is too religious, Ron Paul is too old, and I just don't like Gingrich." Reed, an independent who is retired from working on gas lines, voted for Santorum anyway.
But at a church precinct in Fayetteville, Ga., not-so-glum businessman Glenn Valencia spoke as if reading from Romney's playbook in characterizing what the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist has to offer the party and the country.
"You compare Obama with Romney — Obama big spender, community organizer," he said. "Romney — business organizer, wealth builder, a guy who knows how to make money and has done well, and that's what he's done for a profession, is turn around companies. And that's what we need to do, is turn around the economy."
Still, in suburbs across Ohio, the most fiercely contested state Tuesday, voters spoke of the "painful" campaign and the toll it could take on the eventual nominee.
"I haven't liked the way they've dismembered each other," said Barry Hunter, 65, a retired pharmaceutical-company manager in Dublin, outside Columbus. "They've all been pretty cutthroat." He backed Gingrich.
In suburban Cleveland, Matt Howells, 52, a contractor and Santorum voter, worried that the rivals have merely managed to harm Republican prospects in November with all that negativity. "They really have an uphill battle," he said. "I really don't see a Republican winning the White House. I see it going down as Obama again."
Similar worries were heard in some of the nine other states where people voted or caucused Tuesday.
In Edmond, Okla., Tricia Tetreault, 49, voted for Gingrich, whom she considered the best in a humdrum field. It was enough to make her pine for the Grand Old Party's good old days.
"Ronald Reagan isn't available anymore," she lamented. "What can I say?"
But Romney appealed to Heather Froelich, 40, of Westerville just outside of Columbus. She's a registered Republican and textbook editor who survived layoffs in December but saw some of her friends lose their jobs. "I know that he understands the economy," she said. "He has the right experience and values."
She likes him, too, which she can't say about others in the race.
"Santorum just bores me to tears," she said. And "I don't like Gingrich's whole approach, the way he comes across, his personal life."
At an elementary school in suburban North Royalton near Cleveland, aircraft mechanic Mike Reardon went with his gut — Santorum — even though his head might have told him Romney's got the best shot for Republicans in the fall. "I think he's a good conservative," he said of Santorum. "I don't know if he would be the best to go up against Obama but he's my personal favorite."
Cathy McDevitt, 52, a Westerville doctor who describes herself as a moderate Republican, voted for Paul because he's the only "peace candidate." But she imagines she'll back Romney in the presidential election if he becomes the candidate — despite voting for Obama in 2008.
"I feel that he has just been ineffective as a leader, in terms of runaway spending," she said of Obama. "I think that the U.S. economy doesn't have a chance as long as stuff like that continues. And I think that Mitt Romney is somebody who might be able to start turning that around."
Not all who voted in GOP primaries had the party's interests at heart. Wayne Renardson, 69, a retired jazz musician in Nashville and "political animal," voted for Santorum "because he's the easiest to beat" for Obama. "The Republicans are absolute clowns — all of 'em," he said before hopping on a motorcycle and riding away.
At various precincts around the country, people had nice things to say about Gingrich's intelligence and his taste for big ideas. But there was plenty of talk, too, about baggage, which prominently includes his acknowledgments of past marital infidelity.Comment on this story
At an Atlanta precinct where she voted for Romney, Lena Sisselman, 96, summed up those concerns about Gingrich more pointedly than most.
"I think Gingrich is a smart man, but he's out of place," she said. "And I think he hadn't known how to zip up his pants."
Woodward reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Thomas J. Sheeran in Strongsville, Ohio; Lisa Cornwell in Anderson Township, Ohio; Ken Miller in Edmond, Okla.; Marina Hutchinson in Fayetteville, Ga.; Peter Prengaman in Atlanta; and Joe Edwards in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.