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Economy, beating Obama key issues for GOP even as results diverge in Super Tuesday contests
WASHINGTON (AP) ' Mitt Romney won in the Northeast on Super Tuesday, while Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich picked up victories in Southern states ' results that showcased the vastly different slices of the Republican electorate that headed to the polls.
But even as results diverged, voters in each of the seven primary states polled on Super Tuesday said the same issue ' the economy ' was their top concern. From more moderate Massachusetts and Vermont to more conservative states such as Oklahoma and Tennessee, the economy was the top issue.
TOP ISSUES: The economy is the No. 1 issue for voters in every Super Tuesday state polled, according to early results from exit polls. In Vermont and Massachusetts, which Romney won, voters overwhelmingly cited the economy as their top issue with almost 6 in 10 voters in Massachusetts and most voters in Vermont citing it as a top issue.
In the general election battleground of Ohio, more than half of voters said the economy was their top issue. Among those, Romney claimed about 4 in 10 voters. The next most important issue to voters in Ohio was the federal budget deficit, with about a quarter of voters citing it as their top issue. Romney ran slightly ahead of Santorum among those voters.
In Georgia, where Gingrich was victorious, about 6 in 10 voters said the economy was their top issue.
That was true in other Southern and more conservative states, though more there expressed concern about the deficit. In Tennessee, Oklahoma and Virginia, more than 3 in 10 called the federal budget deficit their top issue. In Tennessee, a large number of voters had misgivings about the federal government. Four in 10 voters in the state said they were angry with the way the federal government is working, according to early exit polls. Santorum and Romney ran roughly even among Tennessee voters who cited the deficit as the biggest issue.
IDEOLOGICAL DIVIDE: Tuesday's votes showcased different parts of the GOP base.
In the Northeast, more moderate Republicans headed to the polls. Vermont's electorate is the only state where exit or entrance polls have been conducted thus far in the nominating contest in which a majority of Republican voters were moderate or liberal. Among them, Romney won handily with roughly 4 in 10 moderate voters favoring him.
In contrast, Oklahoma voters are among the most conservative to vote yet. Nearly half of that state's voters identified themselves as "very" conservative ' outpacing that group's share of the vote in Oklahoma in both 2008 and 2000. Santorum was the favorite of these voters with about 4 in 10 favoring the former Pennsylvania senator.
RELIGIOUS VOTERS: In Tennessee and Oklahoma three-quarters of voters identified themselves as born again. That tops the share in any state with entrance or exit polls voting prior to Super Tuesday.
In both states, Santorum performed well. In Tennessee and Oklahoma, which Santorum won, he carried about 4 in 10 born-again and evangelical voters. Santorum, who is a Catholic, performed well with born-again and evangelical voters in each of the seven states polled on Tuesday, but they made up a smaller slice of the electorate in other states. In Ohio, for example, just under half of GOP primary voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical, and Santorum won roughly half of them.
Romney, a Mormon, performed better among Catholics in Ohio ' who made up about a third of the electorate ' than either Santorum or Gingrich, who is also Catholic. Roughly 4 in 10 Catholic voters favored Romney.
BEATING OBAMA: The Super Tuesday states vary greatly in terms of ideology, but the desire to beat President Barack Obama is universal. The ability to defeat Obama is the quality most frequently cited as central to voters' decisions, according to early exit poll results. In Ohio, one of Tuesday's most hotly contested primaries, about 4 in 10 called a candidate's ability to defeat Obama the most important quality guiding their decisions. In Virginia, nearly half of voters prioritized choosing a candidate who could defeat Obama in November.
In the critical general election state of Ohio, Romney was seen as the candidate with the best chance to defeat Obama by about half of voters. In Tennessee, nearly 4 in 10 voters said Romney was the candidate best equipped to defeat Obama. In Georgia, Gingrich and Romney ran about even on this question.
HOME STATES: Half of the voters in Massachusetts, where Romney was governor, said the state's 2006 health care overhaul went too far. Just over a third of voters said the changes from that law were about right, according to early exit poll results. Massachusetts voters weren't necessarily persuaded to vote for Romney based on his ties to the state ' less than half in early exit polling said his ties to the state mattered somewhat or more to their vote.
For former Gingrich, home state advantage was a big factor in Georgia. 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, former Romney and Santorum.
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 3 percentage points.
Edison Research also conducted interviews at randomly chosen polling places in Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.