03/05/2012 07:43 am ET Updated Mar 06, 2012

Ohio Primary 2012: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum Being Considered By GOP Voters


WEST CHESTER, Ohio -- Here, in a region rich with Republicans, GOP voters seem split between two camps. There are those delighted with Rick Santorum's emergence as an alternative to Mitt Romney and others who are struggling over whom to back in the party's volatile nomination fight.

Exasperation with the field of candidates is common. So is a sneaking feeling that Romney may be worth another look.

"Nobody's really stepped forward for me," says Tim Costello, 64. "It's difficult for me to believe that the Republicans couldn't find someone better."

Six months after first being interviewed by The Associated Press, a group of Republicans in this heavily Republican crescent around Cincinnati is still looking for someone who can unseat President Barack Obama while weighing who to vote for in Tuesday's primary. But few are happy with their choices.

As Carrie Burbage, 33, puts it: "I'm not impressed with any of them." And after watching the GOP infighting in a protracted primary contest, she added: "I truly think that Obama's going to win again ... and it's not good."

After watching others like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich flame out, there's evidence that some are considering Romney anew. Many in this group had spent months seeking what they called "Anybody but Romney" because of skepticism about his conservative bona fides given his previous support of abortion rights and his Massachusetts health care plan that's similar to Obama's national one. But some now suspect Romney might be their safest choice.

"I'm leaning toward Romney, even though I don't like him," says Bill Langdon, co-owner of the Grand Ole Pub, a popular gathering spot for Republicans in this Butler County suburb about 25 miles north of Cincinnati. "Is he the one who can beat Obama? The customers I talk to are just so afraid that Obama will get re-elected."

To be sure, Langdon hasn't ruled out voting for Santorum, but is concerned that the former Pennsylvania senator's outspoken positions on social issues, such as being critical of birth control, would distract from debate over the economy. That may be enough for him to tip his vote Romney's way.

Costello, who lives in neighboring Liberty Township, also seems willing to put aside his concern that "Romney's not in touch with the average working man." He said despite that, "I'd probably have to vote for Romney."

Polls show a close race in the run up to Tuesday's primary, which looms as arguably the most pivotal contest of the 10 held on the same day given the high stakes for both Romney and Santorum. No matter who wins the contest, the eventual nominee will have to gin up support here ahead of November to capture a swing state that has been crucial for Republicans. Obama won the state in 2008.

Santorum emerged as Romney's chief challenger early last month after winning Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, taking the GOP front-runner by surprise. He has maintained the post of alternative to Romney despite losing the last four contests to the former Massachusetts governor.

Daryl Nelson, 38, of Fairfield Township, is among those thinking that Santorum is the real deal – so much so that he's distributing yard signs for the candidates.

"Different people are coalescing around us," said Nelson. "He hits a wide swath of issues here. I think everything he's talking about will continue to ring true with people."

Cyndi Wilkerson, 40, a stay-at-home mom with six children, is getting back into political activity for the first time in years to volunteer for Santorum. His anti-abortion stance and other conservative positions are important to her.

"It's amazing that we have a candidate like this," said Wilkerson, who embraced Santorum's campaign after his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses. "I was never really satisfied with anyone else, but I wasn't sure he had a shot."

Santorum also has the support of Phil Burress, president of the Citizens for Community Values, an organization that has been active on issues such as opposing gay marriage and pornography.

Sandra Arno of Springdale, who had favored former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said she is leaning toward Romney. "I think he'd probably be the best against Obama. Anybody but Obama."