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    Economy top concern for Mass. GOP voters

    Former Gov. Mitt Romney’s ties to Massachusetts didn’t hold much weight with voters in the state’s Republican presidential primary, according to preliminary exit poll results.

    More than half of voters said Romney’s connections to the state didn’t matter much or at all as they chose a candidate Tuesday. Romney, who served as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007, voted Tuesday at a senior center in Belmont, where he and his wife Ann own a condominium and where the couple raised their family.

    Nearly six in 10 voters said the economy was their top issue, with about three in 10 naming the federal budget deficit. About seven in 10 said gas prices were an important factor in their decisions.

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    Just under half said they support the tea party movement, one of the lowest shares found in exit polling in any state so far.

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    In Massachusetts, only enrolled and independent voters can cast votes in each party’s ballot. Registered Democrats cannot cross lines and vote in the Republican primary. According to the exit poll, voters in the GOP primary were split about evenly among those who consider themselves conservative and those who consider themselves moderate or liberal.

    Peter Murley, a lawyer from Hamilton, said he voted for Romney because he considers Romney a ‘‘fiscal conservative and a social liberal.’’

    ‘‘I’m an unenrolled voter, but I’m voting with the Republicans this time because I think we need to get a little more bit conservative in our fiscal world, put our own house in order,’’ said Murley, 52. ‘‘And I think a lot of the Democrats, and the philosophy of the Democrats, is to spend a little too easily.’’

    About four in 10 voters said the ability to defeat President Barack Obama was the one quality in a candidate they valued most.

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    College student Wesley Arning, 19, of Wenham, Mass., said he thinks Obama has done a great job, but Romney could ‘‘push that even farther and can do some great things with the economy,’’ given his business background.

    ‘‘He is the best candidate against Obama because he knows his stuff, he’s been there,’’ Arning said. ‘‘I think he’s willing to play ball with Washington. He’s willing to go after them, push them where they need to, but also he’s got his own agenda and he’s going to push for that.’’

    Nearly half said the 2006 health care overhaul enacted when Romney was governor went too far. About four in 10 say the law’s changes were about right.

    The preliminary exit poll of 945 Massachusetts Republican primary voters was conducted for AP by Edison Research in a random sample of 25 precincts statewide. Results were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points; it is higher for subgroups.

    Methodology details: http://surveys.ap.org/exitpolls/march6method.htm