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Southern Ohio is important political turf

Warren County commissioner Dave Young describes his home area as sort of the “New York, New York,” of conservative politics: as the song goes, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

“We are a microcosm of the conservative movement,” Young said. “If you can’t win Warren County, you can’t win.”

And there are growing signs that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is making it there, and elsewhere.

A conservative crescent of Butler, Warren and Clermont counties in southwest Ohio delivered its votes by more than 2-to-1 to George Bush in 2004, crucial in the Ohio electoral victory that clinched the president’s re-election. And it figures to be important turf for any GOP candidate next year, with Ohio again expected to be a hotly contested swing state.

While voters’ loyalties are considered to be divided and fluid with the state’s primary nearly three months away, all the leading Republican candidates have campaigned in Ohio and have been lining up supporters.

When he made the first visit of his presidential campaign to southwest Ohio just before Thanksgiving, Huckabee was still being described as a long shot, but was moving up in polls in Iowa. Now, with the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses that begin the presidential nominating process near, Huckabee has risen in other states, including Ohio.

A Quinnipiac University poll released early this month showed Huckabee has jumped from the bottom of the field to third place in Ohio among GOP candidates. He continued to trail former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, but had overtaken former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee in the poll.

“There’s momentum,” said Young, a Republican. “There’s been a recognition by the conservative base that he could be our guy, almost despite what some of the national leaders have said. People don’t want to be forced into a corner.”

He said Huckabee impressed a lot of people during his then-underdog campaign’s visit to this suburban city about 15 miles northeast of Cincinnati.

Huckabee’s staunch opposition to abortion and conservative views on other social issues have attracted the support of such southwest Ohio activists as Phil Burress, a leader in battles against pornography and gay marriage and on other conservative issues, and anti-abortion leader Lori Viars.

State Sen. Gary Cates, R-West Chester, said he likes Huckabee’s governing experience, family values record and personality. Politically, he compares his campaign to Democrat Jimmy Carter’s successful 1976 race after starting from behind.

“He’s been quietly and steadily moving up,” Cates said.

Although Huckabee, a Baptist minister, has some influential conservatives in his Ohio corner, Romney, trying to become the first Mormon elected president, has enjoyed good fundraising support in the state. That includes support from the billionaire Lindner family that gave strong backing to President Bush’s campaigns. Craig Lindner helps lead Romney’s Ohio finance committee and father Carl Lindner Jr. is honorary co-chair.

“The Lindners are well-respected throughout Ohio and particularly the Greater Cincinnati community,” said state Sen. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls, a Romney supporter. “To have them on the Romney campaign is a real signal that he’s a leader that southwest Ohio can trust.”

Xavier University political scientist Gene Beaupre sees the race as wide open in the state, with the picture to become clearer after Iowa and New Hampshire begin a rapid-fire series of primaries and caucuses in more than three dozen states before Ohio votes.

“The game hasn’t really started yet,” Beaupre said. “I think it is as confusing in Ohio as it is anywhere else.”

Coughlin said he thinks when Ohio’s primary rolls around March 4, Romney will be riding powerful momentum.

And state Rep. Joe Uecker, R-Loveland, said don’t forget about his guy, Thompson.

“He’s picking up speed; I see some growing concerns with other candidates here in southwest Ohio,” Uecker said. “I think it’s very early.”

Regardless of the GOP nominee, southwest Ohio leaders expect to see a lot of him next year.

“It’s not like we haven’t elected a president for America before,” Cates said, smiling.

Dan Sewell is a writer for the Associated Press.