In Ohio, a series of Quinnipiac University polls tracked Gingrich's rise from low single-digits to 36 percent between September and early December. Cain had fallen to 7 percent after leading the pack at 28 percent in October. The sexual harassment allegations against Cain surfaced in late October.
Lori Viars, a conservative activist and anti-abortion leader in Lebanon, predicted that a Romney nomination would keep some Christian evangelicals on the sidelines in November because of concern about his previous positions on issues, led by abortion. Some in her crowd — Viars is among them — might also hesitate over Gingrich's personal history, which includes two divorces and acknowledged marital infidelity.
"Newt makes a lot of sense," Viars said. "But everyone makes mistakes, and he certainly is right on a lot of issues."
Several of those who have come around to Gingrich say they're not put off by his personal past.
"Would I want him as marriage counselor? No," said Keith. "But that's not what we're electing."
Keith's wife thinks Gingrich's candidacy is on firmer ground because he's already undergone years of scrutiny.
"They've already raked him over the coals pretty good," Pat Keith said.
Other Republican activists say it's still too soon to pick a candidate in a state where there has been little campaigning, and with the GOP field likely to be smaller by the time of Ohio's primary in March.
This region of Ohio is home to some of the nation's first tea party groups, and a number of activists are loyal to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has attracted a band of followers with libertarian-minded calls to bring home U.S. troops and keep the government out of personal decisions.
Cincinnati tea party leader Mike Wilson, though, is "watching and waiting."
Wilson's favorite candidate was Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who dropped out in August. Wilson doesn't share the worry about Romney becoming the nominee. He also said a respectable Iowa finish by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or Texas Gov. Rick Perry could give either of those conservative favorites some traction heading into the contests that follow.
Wilson said Romney can defeat Obama and would work with a Republican-controlled House, should it stay in GOP hands.
"I think we know who the ultimate opponent is — Barack Obama," Wilson said. "With John Boehner as speaker, I think Romney will sign a lot of Republican legislation over the next four years."