Ohio Republicans React To Monday's Debate

In Chillicothe, Ohio, Robert Siegel spends the evening with three Ross County GOP leaders as they watch and listen to the CNN- and Tea Party Express-sponsored presidential debate in Tampa, Fla. All three heavily favored Texas Gov. Rick Perry going into the debate and emerged unchanged. They like the entire field — and think it's way too soon for anyone to drop out. Their main disagreements were over Rep. Ron Paul's assessment of our military involvement abroad.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris.

LLast night's Republican presidential debate in Tampa was a feisty affair. Texas Governor Rick Perry described himself as a pinata after his first debate. And the GOP front runner found himself cast in much the same role last night - except this time, the other candidates brought even bigger sticks.

The Texas governor was pummeled, forced to defend his positions on illegal immigration, his jobs record in Texas, his decision to approve the mandatory vaccination of young girls to prevent cervical cancer, and his description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme.

Here he is getting a grilling from former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

MITT ROMNEY: The question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program - as you did six months ago, when your book came out - and returned to the states, or do you want to retreat from that position?

RICK PERRY: I think we ought to have a conversation...

ROMNEY: We're having that right now, Governor. This - we're running for president.

PERRY: If you'll let me finish, I'll finish this conversation.

NORRIS: Our co-host Robert Siegel is in Chillicothe, Ohio, this week. And he watched the debate with three local, Republican activists. They hope that one of the GOP contenders can win their state, and win the White House.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: Those two aims go hand in hand. Ohio has picked the winner in every presidential race since 1964. And the GOP is on a roll here. Last year, Ohio elected a Republican governor, John Kasich, and a Republican senator, Rob Portman.

Chillicothe is in Ross County, in southern Ohio. The county went narrowly for John McCain in 2008. The Ross County Republican chairwoman is out of town, so I watched the debate with an all-male group, all three of them very impressed with Texas Governor Rick Perry.

PERRY: And I simply want to get America working again and make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

NELSON COLEMAN: Yes. I'll go along with that.

SIEGEL: That's Nelson Coleman. He's 66. He's retired, but he says he spends a lot time still working as a computer consultant. He is now secretary of the Ross County Republicans.

RICK SANTORUM: And I won two elections there without having to change my policies or my party to win.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

COLEMAN: That was a zinger. Always liked Santorum.

SIEGEL: Nelson Coleman says he'll vote for whoever the GOP nominee is, but the more conservative the better.

The county vice chair is 65-year-old Bill Jenkins. He's retired from the Ohio Department of Corrections. He told me his dream ticket would be Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. And he watched closely when those two tangled over Perry's Texas vaccination program. The governor had tried to mandate vaccines for 12-year-old girls to prevent cervical cancer.

PERRY: And if you're saying that I can be bought for 5,000, I'm offended.

BILL JENKINS: If, in fact, there's an opt-out, as Governor Perry said, then yeah, in southern Ohio parlance, she's beating a dead horse.

SIEGEL: Twenty-eight-year-old David Clay used to be in the Air Force. He now works for a furniture company, and he is the Republican candidate for Chillicothe City councilman at large. He likes Perry, but he also likes Bachmann.

DAVID CLAY: I think out of all of the candidates, I think she has been the best at staying on point with her message. She has a message to deliver. Everywhere she goes, everyone she's in front of, she delivers that message.

SIEGEL: These three local Republicans had very similar reactions to the debate. It was a good field; there were some good laugh lines. The worst moment for any of the candidates was Ron Paul defending his view that U.S. foreign occupations led to 9/11.

Here's Bill Jenkins.

JENKINS: I don't think anyone got badly hurt. Ron Paul did get trapped a bit. But for anyone who's been around Ron Paul or listened to him for any length of time, that's Ron Paul.

SIEGEL: Nelson Coleman, what did you think?

COLEMAN: I concur that - I don't believe there's a clear winner or a loser. They're all articulate people; they're all intelligent people. I still like Perry. And I'm more impressed with Bachmann the more I listen to her.

SIEGEL: She gained a bit here for you.

COLEMAN: I gained a bit.

SIEGEL: How about you, Bill? Did Bachmann gain a bit tonight?

JENKINS: I have to say no, simply because I already thought she was an incredibly intelligent, incredibly articulate individual. And I think she gets a lot of her negatives simply from the fact that she's a woman.

SIEGEL: If you could just judge the field in terms of who's best- suited to be a Republican candidate running in Ohio, does somebody stand out, David?

CLAY: That's a tough one for me. In the Air Force, I lived in Texas so I got to know him as a governor. But I think that he does draw in a lot of what we - especially here in southern Ohio - a lot of the things that we hold very true to our very conservative core values that we believe a lot in. So I think...

SIEGEL: Texas doesn't feel like a totally different planet to you here in...

CLAY: Absolutely not. We are right at home.

SIEGEL: ...southern Ohio. Bill Jenkins.

JENKINS: I think that's part of the reason that I feel so good about Perry, because I think he can carry Ohio and do it pretty well. And I think I would use as historical reference the governor's race we just finished, with Kasich. I think their two personalities are very much alike. They're feisty. They firmly believe in what they believe in. And they speak clearly.

SIEGEL: Nelson.

COLEMAN: Even though I was born and raised here in Ohio, if I had to move somewhere else for a better climate - economic climate - Texas looked awfully attractive.

SIEGEL: Mitt Romney, generally seen as being not as conservative as Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann. How convincing, David Clay, was he to you in this debate, that if he ran he'd be conservative enough for you?

CLAY: Not as convincing as Rick Perry. He's flip-flopped on some issues. He has some explaining to do. What he's doing up to this point is, he's kind of dancing around the subject. If he wants to convince people that, I am a conservative and I do hold your conservative values, he needs to come out and explain the things that he's being attacked on a regular basis. Don't dance around it. Just come out and explain it to us.

SIEGEL: Does the mandate from - as they say, RomneyCare, does it bother you?

CLAY: Yeah. I don't believe the government has a right to reach into my pocket.

SIEGEL: Bill, your thoughts on Mitt Romney.

JENKINS: If he's the nominee, he is conservative enough. So it gets down to trust. And I kind of trust Rick Perry more, I guess, than I trust Mitt Romney. He talks like a person instead of a politician.

SIEGEL: Bill Jenkins is vice chair of the Ross County Ohio Republican Party. Nelson Coleman is the county secretary. David Clay is the GOP candidate for city councilman at large here in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Among these Ohio Republicans, Texas Governor Rick Perry has legs.

This is Robert Siegel.

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