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WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum was drawing robust support Tuesday from the most conservative voters in Ohio’s Republican presidential primary, according to early results of an exit poll of voters. He was also managing a modest lead over rival Mitt Romney among the state’s blue-collar voters, whom he has targeted in his drive to slow Romney’s march toward the GOP nomination.
Ohio was the most closely watched of the 10 states holding Super Tuesday presidential contests. With many viewing the state as one of Santorum’s best chances of emerging as the singular challenger to Romney, the two men were drawing strength from different ideological wings of the party, with Romney faring better with more moderate, less religiously driven voters.
In two states where Santorum triumphed, Oklahoma and Tennessee, he was buoyed by voters who said their choices were influenced by religion, the exit polls showed.
More than two-thirds of voters in both states said a candidate’s religious beliefs were an important factor in their decisions. Santorum has frequently spoken about his Catholicism and the role it has played in his life.
On a night on which Santorum and Romney traded victories across the map, there was a potentially ominous sign for the GOP as voters signaled only a lukewarm attachment toward even their own candidate.
Only in three states did most people say they strongly supported the contender they backed, nowhere reaching 6 in 10. In the four other states where polling was conducted Tuesday, fewer than half expressed that degree of support to their candidate.
In Ohio, Santorum had a near 20 percentage point lead among voters considering themselves very conservative, and was faring especially well with people who are conservative on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. The former Pennsylvania senator was also doing strongly with born-again and evangelical voters, and had more than a 2-1 advantage over Romney with people saying it was very important that they share religious beliefs with their chosen candidate.
But while Santorum 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 small lead over Romney among people without college degrees — a common measurement for the blue-collar vote.
Romney, the one-time Massachusetts governor, was leading among all but the most ardently 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.
Santorum’s Oklahoma win was fed by a roughly 15 percentage point advantage among those religiously oriented voters over both Romney and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who was struggling to keep his candidacy afloat. In Tennessee, Santorum’s lead over those two men among people looking for a religious match with their candidate was nearly 2-1.
Another Santorum source of strength in Tennessee were blue-collar voters, who were giving him modest but clear leads over his competitors in both states. He was running about evenly with Gingrich among those voters in Oklahoma but ahead of Romney.
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 much of 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 gave Romney only a small advantage over Santorum and Gingrich.
The campaign’s persistent criticism of Romney’s wealth and background as a private equity executive may be hurting him, the exit surveys showed.
Asked in Ohio and Tennessee which candidate best understands the problems confronted by average Americans, Romney scored poorly. Around a third in each state picked Santorum while only about a fifth named Romney.
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 51 percent 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 won 78 percent of the votes of Georgia Republicans saying his relationship to the state affected their vote, according to the survey.
Around 6 in 10 said his Georgia roots 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.
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 2,728 voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Edison Research also conducted interviews at randomly chosen polling places in Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.