On to Super Tuesday: GOP Battles on for Tennessee

PHOTO: Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum

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."

Chris Devaney, the chairman of the Republican Party of Tennessee, told ABC News the electorate in Tennessee is looking for a candidate that believes "we can't tax and spend our way to prosperity, is not an apologist, can tackle some of the big ideas without continuing to grow our bureaucracy and will stand up for a more traditional type of values."

"Whoever wins this is going to win something for their campaign because it's different from other southern states," said Devaney. "It's in the South, but it also has a broad diverse group of Republicans – moderates, conservatives, and Tea Party activists."

Devaney also argued that voters in the state tend to elect "statesman-like leaders within the Republican party that have a national presence," and pointed to Sen. Lamar Alexander, who submitted an early voting ballot for Romney last weekend, and former Sen. Fred Thompson, who is backing Gingrich, as examples, along with figures dating back in history such as Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston.

But while a large portion of the state trends towards the conservative side, Greer noted voters in the state have a history of electing moderate leaders – such as Alexander, Gov. Bill Haslam, and Sen. Bob Corker.

Delegates are awarded on a proportional basis in Tennessee with each of the nine congressional districts doling out three delegates based on the percentage of the vote among candidates who meet a 20 percent threshold. The remaining delegates are awarded on a proportional basis relying on the overall statewide results among candidates who meet the 20 percent threshold.

In 2008, Romney acquired eight delegates in the state when he placed third with 23.6 percent of the votes behind first-place finisher Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose home state borders Tennessee, and Sen. John McCain. Romney won counties in and around Nashville in 2008, a city which Greer described to range from moderate to liberal but whose outlying counties align to the business conservative side.

The eastern portion of the state also trends along business conservative ties, which could boost Romney, while rural areas and the western part of the state is populated by more conservative evangelical types who would tend to side with Santorum.

Romney has relied extensively on early voting throughout the primary process, but in Tennessee, early voting figures are down 10 percent statewide compared with the 2008 primary. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett attributed this decline to the lack of a competitive Democratic primary. Despite the drop-off in early voting, Hargett said he still expects a strong turnout among Tennessee voters on Tuesday in what he billed to be a "highly competitive primary."

"I believe Tennessee is a competitive state," Hargett told ABC News. "We know that the people voting in these primaries are often waiting until election day to vote, and we anticipate a heavy turnout on Tuesday."

Tennessee allows for members of any party to vote in either primary, but Hargett and Devaney did not anticipate any movements for Democrats to cross-over into the Republican primary this year, as was the case in Michigan Tuesday night.

In the money race, Romney has trounced his counterparts in fundraising in Tennessee, raking in over $930,000 in the state so far, according to FEC reports. Paul has raised nearly $269,000, followed by Gingrich at $159,000. Santorum, who held a fundraiser in the Nashville area Wednesday evening, has raised a little over $38,000 in the state of Tennessee, but Santorum's campaign has boasted about the steady donations flowing into its war chest.

But regardless of the funds available to their campaigns, the candidates have to decide how much time and resources they want to spend in the state while other major contests, such as Ohio, Georgia and Oklahoma, loom as well. Santorum held two events in the state on Wednesday in Knoxville and Nashville along with attending a fundraiser and may return to the state before Super Tuesday.

Romney, who has announced a slew of endorsements from elected Tennessee officials, including the governor, has yet to hold a public event in Tennessee this cycle but has attended a number of fundraisers in the state, most recently on Nov. 17. It is unknown at this time whether Romney will campaign in the state before Tuesday's contest.

Gingrich was in the state earlier in the week but does not plan on returning to the state before Super Tuesday as he intends to focus on racking up delegates in Georgia with a brief jaunt to Ohio on Saturday, but his heavy focus on southern states might not reap as great of benefits in Tennessee as he had hoped, unlike Huckabee, who in 2008 carried Tennessee and other southern states.

"Huckabee tapped into the evangelical vote, but he also didn't have the baggage Gingrich had," noted Greer. "Huckabee was a very strong candidate, and Gingrich is a powerful figure, but he's controversial."

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