Local GOP Leaders Torn Ahead Of Ohio's Key Vote

Feb 23, 2012
Originally published on February 23, 2012 6:33 pm

Tuesday is the next big day for Republicans in choosing their presidential nominee, with primaries in Michigan and Arizona.

A week later, there's an even bigger day: March 6 is this year's Super Tuesday, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses. And the marquee attraction that day? The swing state of Ohio, with 66 delegates at stake, which will also be a key battleground in November.

Polls have former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum holding a slight lead there over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, but they also indicate half of Ohio's GOP primary voters could still change their minds.

"We've seen that Gov. Romney has a terrific grass-roots organization in place, but I will tell you that Sen. Santorum is playing catch-up," said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republicans, during a debate watch party with local GOP leaders on Wednesday night at Price Hill Chili, a down-home Greek restaurant on Cincinnati's west side. "I don't mean that in a negative way. I mean ... there is a tremendous group of supporters for him, so it's sort of coming together for him."

In the same room where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a campaign stop two weeks ago, 10 Ohio Republicans sat around drinking beer and watching the candidates debate on TV.

Among them was Tracy Winkler, Hamilton County's clerk of courts.

"Today," Winkler said, laughing, "and I say today because I've changed my mind several times. Today, I would vote for Rick Santorum."

Winkler acknowledged it's been a wrenching back-and-forth over whom she will ultimately support March 6.

"Initially, I wasn't kind of sticking to my conservative roots and I thought I could vote for Romney, and then I thought Gingrich, and really have just kind of seen his campaign kind of falling apart. So I really feel like, right now, it's Santorum," Winkler said. "But we have a few days to go, so we'll see."

Swing State Voters Sway

Another local official, Tony Rosiello, said he and his wife were also once Romney supporters. He now backs Gingrich and said his wife supports Santorum.

"There was just something missing from [Romney]," said Rosiello, Green Township trustee in Hamilton County. "I don't know really what to put my finger on it, maybe a little bit of plastic. Something just didn't jibe with me. There was a more emotional connection with Speaker Gingrich. ... That's something that just stayed with me. It was a gut feel," said Rosiello.

As Rosiello spoke, Romney was arguing a point on the TV screen about women serving in the military.

Bill Miles was enraptured, saying he "wholeheartedly" supports Romney.

This 53-year-old retirement planner is confident about how this contest will play out.

"At the end of the day, at the end of the primary process, Gov. Romney will be standing tall as a choice that will unite conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and independents and defeat Barack Obama," Miles said.

Time To Decide

A conservative Republican nearby disagreed. George Brunemann is co-founder of the Southwest Cincinnati Tea Party.

"If you nominate Mitt as our guy for the conservative side, you totally take Obamacare off the table, because he's essentially the author of Obamacare," Brunemann said. "And from a Tea Party perspective, why in the world would we want our only two choices to be the only two men who have signed into law universal health care?"

This southwest corner of Ohio has many Catholics and evangelical social conservatives. There are centrist Republicans as well, such as electrical engineer John Ebie, who's also not sold on Romney.

"I'm torn," said Ebie. "I'm a moderate, you know. I'm lookin' at Newt, saying, 'There's a guy who can bring us together, but I'm not sure he can win,' and I'm lookin' at Santorum, saying ... 'I just don't know enough about this guy.' So, for me, it's all about homework now. I got to go out and do more homework."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. After last night's feisty Republican debate in Mesa, Arizona, the next big date in the GOP presidential primary is Tuesday. That's when Arizona and Michigan hold their primaries.

CORNISH: Then there's an even bigger date: March 6th, Super Tuesday, when 10 states hold their contests. Perhaps the most consequential of those will be in the swing state of Ohio. It has 66 delegates and will be a key battleground in November.

BLOCK: Polls show Rick Santorum holding a slight lead there over Mitt Romney, but they also indicate half of Ohio's GOP primary voters may yet change their minds.

NPR's David Welna was at a party last night in Cincinnati to watch the debate. He sent this report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Price Hill Chili is a down-home Greek restaurant on Cincinnati's west side where local GOP leaders like to gather. So in the same room where Newt Gingrich made a campaign stop two weeks ago, 10 Ohio Republicans sit around drinking beer, watching the candidates debate on TV.

Alex Triantafilou is chairman of the Hamilton County Republicans. The latest phenomenon in southwestern Ohio, he says, is Rick Santorum.

ALEX TRIANTAFILOU: You know, what we've seen, really, is that we've seen that Governor Romney has a terrific grassroots organization in place, but I will tell you that Senator Santorum is playing catch-up and I don't mean that in a negative way. I mean that he is - there is a tremendous group of supporters for him, so it's sort of coming together for him.

WELNA: One of those helping it come together is Tracy Winkler, Hamilton County's clerk of courts.

TRACY WINKLER: Today - and I say today because I've changed my mind several times. Today, I would vote for Rick Santorum.

WELNA: Winkler says it's been a wrenching back-and-forth.

WINKLER: Initially, I wasn't like kind of sticking to my conservative roots and I thought I could vote for Romney and then I thought, Gingrich, and really have just kind of seen his campaign kind of falling apart. So I really feel like, right now, it's Santorum. But we have a few days to go, so we'll see.

WELNA: Another local official, Tony Rosiello, says he and his wife were also once Romney supporters. She now backs Santorum and he now prefers Newt Gingrich to Romney.

TONY ROSIELLO: There was just something missing from I don't know really what - to put my finger on it. Maybe a little bit of plastic. Something just didn't jive with me. There was a more emotional connection with speaker Gingrich and that's something that just stayed with me. It was a gut feel.

WELNA: Meanwhile, the former Massachusetts governor is arguing a point on the TV screen above Rosiello.

MITT ROMNEY: And I believe women have the capacity to serve in our military and in positions of significance and responsibility, as we do throughout our society.

WELNA: Bill Miles is enraptured.

BILL MILES: I'm supporting Governor Romney wholeheartedly.

WELNA: This 53 year old retirement planner is confident about how this contest will play out.

MILES: At the end of the day and the end of the primary process, Governor Romney will be standing tall as the choice that will unite conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and independents and defeat Barack Obama.

WELNA: A conservative Republican nearby disagrees. George Brunemann is the cofounder of the Southwest Cincinnati Tea Party.

GEORGE BRUNEMANN: If you nominate Mitt as our guy for the conservative side, you totally take Obamacare off the table because he is, essentially, the author of Obamacare. And, from a Tea Party perspective, why in the world would we want our only two choices to be the only two men who have signed into law universal health care?

WELNA: This southwest corner of Ohio has many Catholics and other evangelical social conservatives. There are centrist Republicans as well, like electrical engineer John Ebie, who's also not sold on Romney.

JOHN EBIE: I'm torn. I'm a moderate. You know, I'm looking at Newt, saying, there's the guy that can bring it together, but I'm not sure he can win. And I'm looking at Santorum, saying, oh, I just don't know enough about this guy. So, for me, it's all about homework now. I've got to go out and do more homework.

WELNA: Ebie has a dozen days to make up his mind. Voters here will then decide who wins the biggest contest to date on this year's likely battleground states. David Welna, NPR News, Cincinnati. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.