NASHVILLE -- With 58 delegates up for grabs next week, Tennessee won't just be known as a country music mecca or the home of Elvis Presley, but instead, its large delegate count and strong conservative roots may help some candidates make a dent in their race for the 437 delegates up for grabs nationwide on Super Tuesday.
As he made the rounds in the state Wednesday, Santorum called the Ohio-Oklahoma -Tennessee trifecta "sort of our wheelhouse right now" during a radio interview. Newt Gingrich is banking on his southern roots to help him win delegates in states such as Georgia and Tennessee, and Mitt Romney, who leads the delegate count at this point, hopes to take advantage of the momentum stemming from his Tuesday night sweep in Arizona and Michigan.
But while Gingrich will rely on his ties to the South and Romney will depend on a boost from his recent victories, the current make-up of the electorate in Tennessee holds the ability to push the race towards Santorum. In Tennessee, 38 percent of voters identify themselves as very conservative, a bloc Santorum handily won in Michigan's primary earlier this week and will likely play to his advantage in the Volunteer state come Tuesday.
"Tennessee is very much like the rest of the country except there's going to be more of an evangelical flavor on the Republican side," said John Greer, a professor at Vanderbilt University.
A recent Vanderbilt University poll found Santorum at the top of the Republican field with 38 percent of support from Tennesseans, a double-digit lead over Romney's 20 percent. Ron Paul received 15 percent, and Gingrich stood at 13 percent while the remaining 13 percent of those polled remained undecided.
Greer, who is also the co-director of the Vanderbilt poll, told ABC News the gap between Romney and Santorum began to shrink towards the end of the poll conducted between Feb 16 and Feb 22, and he argued the difference between the two candidates could easily narrow after Romney's win in Michigan and several missteps by Santorum.
"Romney gets a small boost out of it, but I think the bigger thing is it's a setback for Santorum," Greer said of Santorum's loss to Romney in Michigan. "He loses a little bit of steam and Romney gains it. That's the net difference."
The same Vanderbilt poll showed Santorum leading Romney in both gender categories, receiving 38 percent of support among men compared with the 18 percent backing Romney. 39 percent of women rallied behind Santorum compared with the 22 percent supporting Romney, but the poll was conducted prior to some controversial comments made by Santorum regarding contraception and women in the workplace, talking points which hurt his standing with female voters in Michigan's contest and could carry into the Super Tuesday races.
"He decided to make some controversial comments that probably came back to haunt him a little bit," said Greer. "He has not been vetted like the other candidates, but he's starting to get vetted, and he's said some things that have bothered people. But some of those things are hardcore conservative that he will continue to appeal to."