As Primary Looms Closer, Knox County Residents Weigh Republican Field

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Nearly 300 Republicans gathered at a conference center in Mt. Vernon for the Knox County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner this past Saturday.

As people waited for their prime rib, Knox County GOP chair Chip McConville warmed up the crowd.

"I want you to join me on November 6th for another big party," began McConville, "and that is the retirement party for Barack Obama!"

The crowd cheered and whistled, united in wanting to unseat the president. Republicans here are torn though as to just who is the best person to make that happen. But as the economy shows signs of improving, social issues are returning to prominence and that’s helping Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum gain ground in Ohio and other parts of the country.

Santorum’s recent attacks on President Obama’s attempts to force religious institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception has fired up many evangelicals.

Jamie Richardson, vice-president of corporate relations for White Castle Hamburgers, says he's just switched from Mitt Romney to Santorum.

"Because the recent issues that have been in the press in terms of the Catholic Church and the (Obama) Administration's attack on freedom of religion," Richardson explains.

He also describes Santorum as a "real person of virtue" who's lived Republican values, "and is able to speak with real ability and real conviction."

Retiree Julie Herman is also angry over what she sees as a war on faith. She says she's backed Santorum for a long time, and is glad he's come to the forefront.

"I said to my daughter last week, 'I think we're going to have a Catholic president next year, Santorum'", Herman says. "He doesn't have any baggage like the rest of them do. Romney has Romneycare in Massachusetts, Gingrich has all the crap his ex-wife comes out and talks about him. Rick Santorum doesn't have that. He says it like it is."

Ohio’s Attorney General, Mike DeWine, is another to switch horses from Romney to Santorum in recent days. And one recent poll shows Santorum pulling ahead of Romney in Ohio with a 7-point lead.

For Debbie Hawk and her husband, it’s not just that Santorum has been consistent in his social conservatism; they also consider him more of an everyday working-class person….someone that they can relate to.

"He's more of a common person like some of us," says Hawk. "Romney is from a society and a generation I feel like…he's never been in some of the situations that some of us as far are in, as far as everyday worrying about things…y'know….with his money."

Yet some Republicans wonder if Santorum's views aren't too polarizing...that maybe he’s too “black and white”. Others remain worried about whether he’ll be able to stay in the game.

Terry Davis, a fire prevention officer for Mt. Vernon, Ohio, isn't confident in either of the top two Republican frontrunners.

"Mitt Romney? He's led a comfortable lifestyle, he has made a lot of money off of other people," says Davis. "And Rick Santorum is in over his head. He's like, "Omigosh, look at where I'm at." He has really good views, but not sure if he can actually…if he can stick to them, or if he'd be easily swayed."

Instead, Davis backs Libertarian Ron Paul. He likes Paul's goals to cut government, tackle the federal deficit, and treat Wall Street no differently than Main Street.

"No bailouts. Nothing like that. The American people…if you can't pay your bills, you lose....big banks or any of the other big corporations, why should they be any different? If they can't pay their bills, they lose."

The rotating cast of challengers to Romney’s front-runner status has made this campaign look more like a game of "Whack-a-mole" than "Follow the leader," so far. But that hasn’t discouraged Carol Sue Owens, a retired school principal and the Knox County Republican Party’s secretary.

“He (Romney) has administrative experience, being a governor of Massachusetts," says Owens. "His work with the Olympics tells us that he can do a job. He can take something that is in debt and turn it around, and make money for it.”

Wherever GOP voters finally land, they are considering Santorum more than before. It appears to be his moment to rise….or fall.

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