PORT RICHEY — Republican voters in Pasco were split Tuesday about who should be their nominee for president, but many had the same underlying goal: Defeat President Barack Obama in November.
"Anybody is better than who we have now," Brenda Kuhr, 53, said after voting for Mitt Romney at the Regency Park Civic Association.
More than 35 percent of Pasco's nearly 116,000 Republicans voted in the presidential primary. Early returns showed about 45 percent of Pasco GOP voters favoring Romney, with about 30 percent backing Newt Gingrich.
Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said he was pleasantly surprised with the turnout. Based on early votes and mail ballots, he predicted that 25 percent of Republicans would vote. That figure was surpassed by 2 p.m.
"This is one time I don't mind being wrong," said Corley, who reported no logistical issues Tuesday afternoon.
Past presidential primaries, he said, had a high turnout because there were pocketbook issues also on the ballot — the Penny for Pasco sales tax in 2004 and the Amendment 1 property tax referendum in 2008.
Jerri Edwards, 65, said she voted for Romney in part because of his father's time as governor of Michigan, where she used to live. She said she is not concerned that he is too moderate, a frequent criticism of the former Massachusetts governor.
"I think he's changed," she said. "He admitted he changed."
But Gingrich supporter Marion Belesimo, 69, leveled a flip-flopper charge at Romney: "One time he says this, another time he says that."
Beacon Woods also saw a flavor of upcoming local elections. A volunteer for Clerk of Courts Paula O'Neil said she had gathered 120 ballot petitions by midday, and Commissioner Jack Mariano's mother was also gathering petitions for the fall election. In other precincts, volunteers collected the final batch of petitions needed to land Sheriff Chris Nocco on the ballot.
Unlike some other communities, Pasco had no local races on Tuesday's ballot.
By Tuesday afternoon, voters trickled into the Regency Park civic center, where the election battled with an upcoming bingo game for attention.
Gingrich "was the only one that had the courage to stand up to Obama," said Susan Orem, 66, echoing many voters who said the former House speaker would hold his own in debates against the president.
Many voters said they were also turned off by the deluge of negative commercials that have crammed Florida TV sets in the past few weeks.
"The Republicans are fighting with one another," said Jim Colosimo, 60, an employee of Progress Energy and Gingrich voter. "All the mudslinging, it's ridiculous. You should be able to run on your own merits."
Added Robin Yates, a 63-year-old whose politics lean moderate: "The sheer amount of money and the volume that's polluting the system has put me off."
He had wanted to vote for Jon Huntsman but decided to go with Texas congressman Ron Paul, largely because his campaign hasn't been as negative.
Romney's campaign and outside groups supporting him have outspent Gingrich by a three-to-one margin.
Even though many voters blanch at the ads, many analysts say the commercials helped improve Romney's chances of victory.
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.