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Southwest Ohio: Epicenter for Republican race

By Dana Bash and Deirdre Walsh, CNN
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue March 6, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At former Boehner family bar, sister shares lack of enthusiasm for GOP field
  • Several patrons say they haven't made up mind on candidate in Tuesday's primary
  • Rick Santorum's backers admit Mitt Romney has superior organization in state
  • While divided over candidates, Republicans united to defeat President Obama

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Cincinnati (CNN) -- At Andy's Café, Lynda Meineke says she speaks for a lot of people here -- she's unenthusiastic about the Republican presidential candidates and disgusted with the way they've run their campaigns.

"It might just be a flip of a coin," she said with a bit of a sigh.

Meineke is a typical Republican voter, but her family is anything but typical. Her full name is Linda Boehner Meineke. Her brother is House Speaker John Boehner.

"There's too much bashing back and forth; they need to say something positive about what they're going to do," she said, as big television screens on either end of the bar blast one political ad after another.

She is the last Boehner to work in this bar opened by their grandfather some 75 years ago.

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The House speaker mopped floors and worked at the bar here years ago. If he came back in today, he would find a lot of Republicans uninspired by their options in the presidential race.

At a table of a half-dozen voters having drinks on the eve of Tuesday's primary, all said they had not decided on a candidate. Up and down the bar, there was similar sentiment -- a lot of shoulder shrugs and even some eye-rolling.

The former Boehner family bar draws the kind of voter Rick Santorum is trying to lure -- working-class conservatives.

Santorum needs those voters to come out in big numbers here in Hamilton County, which is rock-solid Republican territory.

At Beckett Park in West Chester over in Butler County, Santorum volunteers prepare to knock on doors, hand out literature and make a final push for their candidate.

Cyndi Wilkerson, a mother of six, showed up in freezing cold weather with her three youngest children, including two toddlers.

"I think it's really important. I think this election is really about freedom and I think with the Obama administration we're seeing our freedom stripped away, and Rick Santorum is the best person to fight for American families," Wilkerson said.

Out walking a neighborhood with Margaret Delfavreau, Wilkerson said she believes Santorum is the only one "to defend and protect the Constitution."

"He's the only one I'm feeling this trust with," she said.

These volunteers are last-minute helpers -- driven by enthusiasm for Santorum.

What Romney has going for him in southwest Ohio and all over the state is a tremendous organization.

The former Massachusetts governor has chairmen in all 88 Ohio counties, local leaders working their friends and neighbors.

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"We have a very strong organization here. We've spent a number of weeks and months reaching out to supporters about why Gov. Romney is the strongest candidate to face (President Barack) Obama and why he supports tax cuts, pro-growth policy that will help get our economy moving again," said Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesman on the ground in Ohio.

"Our phone banks have been up and running every night. People in here reaching to people on Facebook, Twitter and other social-network media and tools," Williams said.

Butler and Hamilton are adjacent counties, the epicenter for the Republican presidential race in this state. Hamilton includes the city of Cincinnati and its suburbs.

Alex Triantafilou, the Republican chairman in Hamilton County, said the area is truly up for grabs.

"My sense is it's going to be very close. I think that although Rick Santorum was doing well a week ago, we have also noticed a really strong organized effort by Gov. Romney," Triantafilou said.

The Butler County GOP chairman supports Santorum but admits Romney has a much better organization in the state.

"I have to be candid. (Romney) has a better operation. But the energy that Santorum people have I witnessed it at rallies -- it's remarkable," said Butler County Republican County Chairman Dave Kern.

His wife, Katie Kern, is on the board of the local tea party and also backs Santorum.

"I like the fact that he is fiscally responsible, that he believes in smaller government," she said.

But her friend Susan McLaughlin, another local tea party leader, said she's supporting Romney because of his business background.

"If I look at the Constitution as our business plan and our business model, I want someone to sit down and analyze what we are doing. Probably it's the biggest business in the country. I want someone that brings that business sense to it," McLaughlin said.

But sitting at a table at Willies -- a restaurant owned by conservative radio host Bill Cunningham -- Brian Ashenbaum voiced the same indifference with the GOP field overheard at Andy's Cafe.

"You have to make a choice of who is likely to upset you the least. American politics comes down to the lesser of ones I don't like," said Ashenbaum , who made it clear that Obama is the one he likes the least -- by far.

In fact, back at Andy's in a sea of uninspired voters, one thing that got people's blood pumping was a strong desire to defeat Obama.

At a table of four, three were for Santorum and one for Romney. But one thing Republicans unite around is deep dislike of the president.

"No matter who it is, if they have a 'R' behind them, I'm going to vote for them," said Al Babey, whose three friends all nodded in agreement.

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