Dan Sewell

CINCINNATI: The shopping days before the presidential nominating season begins are dwindling, leaving Republican activists in a GOP stronghold region of Ohio still checking the field’s long list to choose the right candidate for them.

Outsider candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson have stayed atop most polls, while veteran politicians such as Jeb Bush have been unable to break out of a pack that has thinned only slightly, with 14 candidates still active barely two months before the Iowa caucuses.

“For starters, I’m really surprised it’s still as big as it is,” said Kennedy Copeland, president of the College Republicans at Xavier University. “I think everybody is just trying to hang on. But the (junior varsity) candidates need to drop out.”

The cities and townships that form a crescent over the city of Cincinnati comprise a solid base for Republicans in a swing state that history says they must carry to win the White House. The Associated Press has been tracking efforts by some key Republicans in the region the past four months to choose their candidate, and finds them in most cases continuing to struggle with their decision.

“I still haven’t made my final choice,” said Lori Viars, longtime Warren County conservative activist. “This is very unusual for me.”

Some highlights of recent interviews:

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CRUZ-ING

Sue Hardenbergh, politically active in suburban Anderson Township near Cincinnati, has decided on U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. She said she recently donated to his campaign and will look into active support after the holidays.

“I think he has what it takes to stand up and defend the country from a constitutional perspective,” she said. “He’s been very consistent as a senator.”

The southwest Ohio region has had significant tea-party activity in recent years, and Warren County GOP chairman Ray Warrick said Cruz is a favorite in many of those groups.

The conservative firebrand gained in the latest Quinnipiac University poll on Iowa, which put him second only to Trump, within the poll’s margin of error.

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THE TRUMP FACTOR

The popularity of the brash businessman along with Carson’s, the retired neurosurgeon, doesn’t necessarily surprise the activists, who think many Republicans are restless after seeing two established politicians, Mitt Romney and John McCain, lose the last two presidential elections.

“People are so tired of the GOP money making the decision,” Hardenbergh said. “I think people are eager to hear someone who will stand up and not temper every word, and calculate every phrase, to make it RNC-compliant.”

Warrick said Trump remains formidable because he has “gotten the attention” of voters, both Republicans and Democrats, who wouldn’t normally be following campaigns closely.

Harry Prestanski, a veterans’ issues advocate in West Chester Township, said Trump and Carson have brought some interesting new approaches and ideas, but he wonders whether party regulars will come out in big numbers to knock on doors, make phone calls and put up signs for them.

He also suspects Trump’s aggressive rhetoric aimed at other candidates could backfire: “Down the road, he’ll need to bring these people together if he is the eventual nominee, and my feeling is he may have difficulty doing that.”

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KEEPING AN EYE ON RUBIO

Copeland said she isn’t endorsing anyone yet but is “definitely leaning” toward U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

“He’s talking about student loans and talking about the jobs when students graduate,” she said. “The young vote is being ignored by most of this field.”

Prestanski’s been eyeing Rubio and likes that he’s “picking up steam.”

Viars said Rubio isn’t her top pick, but “he’s not on the list of people I could not support.” She said Rubio would be an improvement to conservatives like her over Romney and McCain.

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WHAT ABOUT THE OHIO GUY?

While popular in his pivotal home state, second-term Gov. John Kasich, a former congressman, hasn’t caught fire nationally.

“Kasich, I think, still has the most valuable experience that could translate into being a president,” Prestanski said. “But that message hasn’t caught on.”

Copeland said she knows and likes Kasich because she’s in Ohio, but that he hasn’t been able to portray his strengths well on the national stage.

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For some of his other recent stories: http://bigstory.ap.org/content/dan-sewell