WASHINGTON – Rick Santorum was drawing strong support Tuesday from the most conservative voters in Ohio's Republican presidential primary, according to early results of an exit poll of voters. Yet despite targeting the state's blue-collar voters, they were giving him only a slender lead over rival Mitt Romney, the survey was showing.
Ohio was the most closely watched among the 10 states holding Super Tuesday presidential contests. With many viewing the state as one of Santorum's best chances of slowing Romney's march toward the GOP nomination, the two men were drawing strength from different ideological wings of the party.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, was doing best among Ohio Republicans considering themselves very conservative, especially on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. He was also doing well with born-again and evangelical voters and with people saying it was very important that they share religious beliefs with their chosen candidate.
Santorum had more than a 2-1 lead over Romney among the state's voters who say a candidate's religious beliefs were a big factor in their vote.
But while he spent much of his campaign seeking to cement bonds with working-class voters by citing his upbringing in Pennsylvania coal country and stressing U.S. manufacturing, he had only a tiny lead over Romney among people without college degrees — a common measurement for the blue-collar vote.
Romney, the one-time Massachusetts governor, was doing strongly with less conservative voters in Ohio. He was also capturing a majority of those saying they want a candidate who can defeat President Barack Obama this fall, and was leading among voters saying their most important issue is the economy.
In two Southern states where Santorum was also hoping for strong performances, he was being buoyed by voters who said their choices were influenced by religion, exit polls showed.
In Oklahoma, Santorum built a 2-1 lead among those voters over both Romney and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who is struggling to keep his candidacy afloat. His lead over those two men among people in Tennessee looking for a religious match with their candidate was nearly as large.
In both of those states, born-again and evangelical voters comprised nearly three-fourths of those participating in Tuesday's voting, the exit polls showed.
Another Santorum source of strength in Tennessee and Oklahoma were blue-collar voters, who were giving him modest but clear leads over his competitors in both states.
One of Romney's chief selling points is his assertion that his business background gives him expertise on handling the economy, but Tennessee and Oklahoma voters were not giving him an edge on that issue. Romney and Santorum were running about even among Tennessee voters who consider the economy the top issue in the election, while Oklahoma voters focused on the economy were split about evenly between Romney, Santorum and Gingrich.
In Massachusetts, Romney performed strongly among all types of voters.
But that state's GOP voters expressed displeasure with the health care coverage program enacted while Romney was governor, with half saying the measure had gone too far. Romney has been criticized for that plan by his GOP rivals and has pledged, if elected, to repeal Obama's national health care overhaul, which resembles Romney's Massachusetts measure.
In Georgia, an exit poll of GOP voters there shows the victory there by Gingrich, who represented the state in Congress for two decades, was propelled by people saying the former speaker's ties to the state were important.
Gingrich was winning around three-fourths of the votes of Georgia Republicans saying his relationship to the state affected their vote, according to early results from the survey.
Around 6 in 10 said that mattered little to them, and those voters were divided roughly evenly among Gingrich, Romney and Santorum.
In Vermont, Romney did strongly among rank-and-file Republicans. Texas Rep. Ron Paul ran solidly among the 4 in 10 independent voters.
In Virginia, where only Romney and Paul were on the ballot, Romney performed strongly across most categories of voters.
Exit polls were conducted in seven of the 10 states voting Tuesday, sampling groups of GOP voters ranging from the most moderate in Vermont and Massachusetts to the most conservative and religious in Oklahoma and Tennessee.
On two subjects, voters in each of the states voting Tuesday had the same view.
Given a choice of four issues, Republicans in every state named the economy as the one that most concerns them. Given four qualities to look for in a candidate, the one cited most often was an ability to defeat Obama in November's general election.
The Ohio survey was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left 40 selected polling places in the state. The Ohio poll involved interviews with 2,702 voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Edison Research also conducted interviews at randomly chosen polling places in Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.
AP News survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.