COLLIER COUNTY — With their sights set on defeating President Barack Obama in the fall, Dennis and Mary Jane Dowd of Naples cast votes Thursday for Republican Newt Gingrich, despite new allegations of marital infidelity.
"I think he's probably the smartest man in the fold and he's a good debater," said Dennis Dowd, 63, a retired New Jersey police chief. " I don't have an awesome amount of faith in Obama."
It was a wild day in the GOP race, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry ditching his presidential bid, Gingrich's ex-wife claiming he'd asked for an "open marriage," and news that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had inched past Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in the Iowa caucuses.
Despite the race's changing dynamics, several Collier Republican voters who cast ballots at the library on Orange Blossom Drive said they were unswayed by the day's news and weren't budging from their votes.
Dowd's wife called Gingrich the best choice.
"He's the best and brightest," said Mary Jane Dowd, a 60-year-old real estate broker, adding that the allegations about the former House Speaker's infidelities did not affect her vote. "I think he's made his amends, he's admitted his mistakes. Everybody deserves a second chance."
Dennis Dowd said no one knows if the latest news about Gingrich is 100 percent true. "But I'm not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater," he said.
Others were more attracted to the moral and ethical stance Romney gained from his devout Mormon background.
"I think the choice we have is a little complicated because of integrity issues," said Jim Longmore, 68, of Naples, who admired Santorum's congressional experience and Gingrich's political savvy and brilliant mind — but wouldn't back him due to the marital allegations.
"Romney. I believe he will be good," Longmore said. "I want someone whose integrity is at least as good as mine. He's an oddball, but who isn't?"
Kathleen Smalley, 45, was shocked that Santorum edged out Romney in Iowa. She said she leaned toward Romney.
"He's the best of the worst." Smalley said. " ... It would be nice to have someone with common sense go back to basics, to start from square one."
Jim Lazarus, 54, a 99-percent Occupier who sat with a friend outside the library, firmly believes Obama should remain in office.
"He's for the poor people," said Lazarus, an unemployed Democrat.
Everything could shift Saturday, after South Carolina's primary, which will be followed by Florida's on Jan. 31.
Slightly fewer people are turning out for early voting this year than in 2008, said Timothy Durham, Collier County's chief deputy supervisor of elections. That's because most of the county's Democrat and Republican voters could vote in the 2008 presidential preference primary, he said, but only Republicans can this year.
By Thursday afternoon, 4,322 Collier Republicans — nearly 5 percent — had cast early ballots. With Perry no longer running, elections officials said a vote for him — or any former Republican candidate — cannot be changed.
"If you put absentee voting in context of in-person voting, it's no different than if you put it in the ballot box," Durham said, noting that voters in presidential preference primaries often wait to cast ballots because candidates drop out.
No one in Collier or Lee counties has asked to change votes, but Lee County Supervisor of Election Sharon Harrington said some have inquired whether those votes will count.
The defunct campaigns — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, businessman Herman Cain and Perry — have not "officially withdrawn" from the race in Florida, Harrington said, so their names will remain on ballots and those votes will count, unless the state receives an official withdrawal letter.
Staff writer Jenna Buzzacco-Foerster and the Associated Press contributed to this report.