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Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at West Hills Elementary School in Knoxville, Tenn., Sunday, March 4, 2012.
I'd rather have a rich person who knows what the heck he's doing than some poor person who doesn't know jack. I don't blame him at all for being wealthy. —Paul Miller, retired accountant

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ellen Holden said she's supporting her second choice in Ohio's key Super Tuesday Republican primary to help block Mitt Romney's chances of winning the party's nomination.

She voted early for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum as the race has turned into a two-man battle between Romney and Santorum that could be decided in Ohio, where the two candidates are tied in the polls.

Holden, who returned to nursing after the bad economy forced her family to sell an excavation business they'd run for 15 years, said she'd rather have cast her ballot for former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich.

"But I thought my vote would go unnoticed and help Romney," said Holden, who opposes the former Massachusetts governor's state health care plan as well as what she sees as his inability to relate to working-class Americans.

"I don't think he's for the common man. It seems like he's in such an exalted spot," she said, questioning whether Romney can understand the plight of families like hers who have seen their lives changed by the economic downturn.

Her husband, Mike Holden, said he's also backing Santorum for the same reasons and, like his wife, would vote for Romney in November if he becomes the nominee. Romney might be able to help the country, Mike Holden said, "but he just doesn't seem sincere about it."

The Holdens, from the nearby suburb of Delaware, were among thousands of Central Ohio area residents gathered at the state fairgrounds Sunday for a home and garden show that featured lush displays of spring flowers despite the snowy weather outside.

Craig Matt and his wife, also from Delaware, were browsing the latest backyard accessories. He, too, said he already voted for Santorum because he doesn't trust Romney.

"He's just looking out for his fat cats and their tax breaks," Matt said, calling Romney out of touch "even with middle-class people. I'd like to know if he knows what the price of a gallon of milk is."

Matt's wife, Nancy, said the most important issue is coming up with a way to balance the federal budget. "I think it's time to consider raising taxes for the extremely wealthy," she said, something she doesn’t believe Romney would do.

Brad Rawlins, a car dealer from Blacklick, said he'd vote Tuesday for Santorum but had little good to say about any of the GOP candidates.

"In my opinion, he's the best of the worst," Rawlins said. "None of them are in touch with the people."

He said he wasn't a fan of Romney. "I just don't care for some of his views and the way he says things, you know, about his income, the off-shore accounts and all that."

Mary Hauler, a stay-at-home mom from Galena, said she still hadn't made up her mind completely but probably would support Romney.

She acknowledged she wasn't very enthusiastic, but said she was willing to vote for Romney because he's the most likely to beat the Democratic candidate, President Barack Obama.

"Honestly, I think he's the most electable," Hauler said of Romney. "I think I might be a little more conservative than he is. I like that he's been in the private sector."

Paul Miller, a retired accountant from Columbus, also was leaning toward Romney for similar reasons.

"He's kind of a mix between moderate and conservative. I think he's got the best chance to beat Obama," Miller said, adding he's not bothered by Romney's personal wealth, estimated at some $250 million.

"Not at all," Miller said. "I'd rather have a rich person who knows what the heck he's doing than some poor person who doesn’t know jack. I don’t blame him at all for being wealthy."

Nancy Vehr of Grove City said she likes both Romney and Santorum. "But Santorum is my guy," she said. "I feel Santorum when he talks, I feel what he's saying, that it's all coming from his heart," she said.

Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck said the home show crowd appears to reflect the electorate's mood at the moment.

"What you're hearing from people is what the polls have been showing in Ohio and others states, that Santorum does seem to be connecting better," Paul said, particularly with lower- and middle-class voters.

Many Republicans just feel more comfortable with Santorum's strong stands on social issues, Beck said. But he said many of those same voters also realize Romney is more electable.

"That's a dilemma," Beck said, that's led to discouragement with the GOP field.

Santorum may not be viewed as able to win the general election, he said, but Romney is seen "as somebody who has sort of had to go out of character to appeal to the electorate," which doesn't build voter trust.

It's also a move that has sometimes backfired, such as when he tried to reach out to voters in Michigan by talking about his family's American cars, including his wife's two Cadillacs.

Ohio could at least come close to settling the question of which direction the GOP wants to go, Beck said, although he predicted the race will continue at least until April.

"Of all the Super Tuesday states, Ohio is really the one that's up for grabs," Beck said. "It really comes down to Ohio as the one that can be a momentum maker."

Another Ohio State political science professor, Herb Weisberg, said because Santorum held a wide lead in Ohio until recently, "if he loses, he's toast. If that lead is blown, that's saying bad things about his future."

Weisberg described the race in Ohio as a test of Romney's focus on economic issues that helped him to a narrow victory last week over Santorum in Michigan, the state where Romney grew up and his father was a popular governor.

"We suffered a lot in the recession, maybe not as much as Michigan, but we suffered," Weisberg said of the rust belt state. "It will be interesting to see how that plays out in Ohio. Jobs are so important here that Romney portraying himself as a CEO who can get the economy moving should be appealing here."

Romney won't be in Ohio on election night, instead heading to one of the Super Tuesday states he's all but guaranteed to win, Massachusetts.

"I think it's smart," said Kirk Jowers, a longtime Romney adviser and head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Jowers dismissed the suggestion that being in Boston on election night will connect Romney to Massachusetts' liberal image, especially passage of his state health care plan.

"At this stage, everyone's figured out he's a Massachusetts Mormon," Jowers said, describing the venue selection as "neutral" to most voters.

Beck said Romney may be looking for a place to celebrate that will have a more "upbeat feel" than an election party in Ohio, where the vote is in doubt.

"It could be the kind of thing where nobody shows up," he said. "And that becomes the story."

Joel McElhannon, an Atlanta-based GOP stratigist, called the decision to spend election night in Massachusetts "very peculiar" since the focus of Super Tuesday will be on Ohio.

"I think where a candidate is on election night speaks volumes about where his priorities are," McElhannon said. "It's kind of a big question mark why he would not be there."

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