Southern GOP Chairs See Hurdles for Romney on Super Tuesday

PHOTO: Mitt Romney speaks at a town hall meeting at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio Feb. 29, 2012.Gerald Herbert/AP Photo
Mitt Romney speaks at a town hall meeting at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio Feb. 29, 2012.

Talk of a late-entering white knight candidate may have died down in light of Mitt Romney's victory in Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday, but it's far from smooth sailing for his campaign.

In five days, 10 states will hold their voting contests on March 6, the highly anticipated Super Tuesday. The Super Tuesday states -- Alaska, Idaho, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia and Vermont -- are diverse in their demographics, and several larger states are expected to pose a challenge for the Romney campaign.

But the three Southern states -- Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee -- are seen as particularly important for the former Massachusetts governor, as each offers large delegate prizes to the victor. (A victory in Georgia brings 76 delegates; Oklahoma, 43; Tennessee, 58. That's a total of 177 of the 437 delegates at stake in Super Tuesday, or about about 41 percent.)

In addition to delegates, the Southern winner walks away from this contest with another important asset: bragging rights.

Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee are solid red states. A victory in these states constitutes proven approval from the Republican Party's base, approval that Romney still seeks and needs, and Santorum and Gingrich still actively try to claim.

Current polling shows Romney down in each of these three key states, and although state Republican Party leaders agree that the race is still fluid, Romney has his work cut out for him.

"Santorum has had a lead in Oklahoma in all of the recent polling over the past few weeks. Mitt's wins last night may give him a little bump, but it's probably too soon to really say how much of a bump," Oklahoma Republican Party Chairman Matt Pinnell told ABC News.

"I think that a lot of voters have been watching and will continue through March 6 to make their final decision on whom they're going to vote for as presidential nominee," explained Tennessee Republican Party chairman Chris Devaney.

"I think in this state there probably are still a number of people who are still watching. Certainly it was a good night for Mitt Romney last night, but they'll continue to watch, and this group in Tennessee is an independent group. They went for Mike Huckabee in 2008, but it was a competitive race here, and I would expect that it will be competitive over the next week, leading into March 6.

"He's got to work the Southern states and work them well and get the message that Southerners want to hear," Sue Everhart, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Georgia, said of Romney.

Each state party leader highlighted the hurdles to be faced not only by Romney but by all the other candidates in each Southern state up for grabs on Tuesday.

In Tennessee, Devaney explained, a candidate has to appeal to a very broad base of Republican voters. In the eastern part of the state, the voting base is more traditional. In the suburban areas around Nashville and Memphis, there is a strong Tea Party presence. In the more rural areas, there are a lot of conservative Democrats who have switched parties in the past decade or so. A candidate must appeal to more than just one of these groups if they hope to claim a victory in Tennessee.

Romney's allies have invested heavily in Tennessee. Restore Our Future, the super Pac supporting Romney's presidential bid, has spent $603,792 on ad buys targeted against Rick Santorum in the state, according to its Federal Election Commission filings. Romney has strong support in Tennessee, including the endorsement of Gov. Bill Haslam, the state chairman of the Romney campaign.

Candidates face a time challenge in Oklahoma, where the ground campaign is more important than in some of the earlier states, such as Florida, explained Pinnell. With nine other states to consider, candidates cannot focus on their ground gain in Oklahoma the same way they could in early primary states like Iowa.

Oklahoma prides itself on being the reddest state in the country, and Pinnell said for that reason, victory in the Sooner State can be a trump card for the victor. "All of our candidates are trying to be able to make the claim that they've closed the deal with the base, and there's nowhere better for them to make that claim than if they win the reddest state in the country," Pinnell said.

In Georgia, Romney and Santorum will likely be vying for second place, Everhart predicted, as Gingrich was likely to win the state he represented in Congress for 20 years. But Georgia has the largest delegate prize of any of the Super Tuesday states -- 76. But since the delegates are awarded proportionately, a second-place finish can help any candidate.

All of the Southern state party leaders emphasized the importance of victory in their region.

"If you don't win the South, you don't win the nomination," said Everhart.

ABC News's Matt Negrin contributed reporting to this story.