Politics 2012: Tennessee's 56-delegate prize awaits

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International  |  March 4, 2012 at 4:43 AM
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Behind Ohio lurk several states that could hold some sway when Republicans vote or caucus on Super Tuesday, Tennessee among them.

Tennessee, along with Oklahoma and Georgia, could be considered on the top rungs of the remaining nine states behind Ohio, and recent polls indicate Tennessee shows former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania rallying support in the Volunteer State, keeping his status as co-front-runner with Mitt Romney intact.

A Vanderbilt University survey released late last month indicated Santorum was rallying strong support from Tea Party supporters and evangelical Christians while staying at least competitive with Romney in other groups.

A RealClearPolitics.com average of polls, which includes the Vanderbilt survey -- indicated Santorum has a near-20 percentage point advantage over Romney, 39 percent to 19.5 percent while Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were tied at 13 percent.

Despite Santorum's decent double-digit lead, the race in Tennessee was expected to remain fluid because one in four potential voters either didn't know or didn't like the candidates, Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer told The (Nashville) Tennessean.

"As big a theme as Santorum leading is that a lot of people haven't made up their minds," said Geer, co-director of the Vanderbilt Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

The National Journal said that, given Santorum's positive polling numbers, Tennessee could be an uphill battle for Romney, despite going two for two last week in the Michigan and Arizona primaries.

Trailing in the polls, Gingrich is trying to recapture the momentum he had going into a win in South Carolina before he was trounced in Florida, a loss from which he has yet to recover.

While stumping in Nashville last week, Gingrich talked about his roller-coaster campaign, The Tennessean reported.

"I have the longest record of any candidate in this race of being able to somehow re-emerge over and over again," Gingrich said.

Geer said he thinks most Republican voters in Tennessee, no matter where their candidate finishes in the primary, will vote for the party standard-bearer because of their desire to make Barack Obama a one-term president.

Tennessee is a reliable red state where Obama lost by a wide margin to GOP candidate John McCain in 2008.

Geer told ABC News late last week the divide between Romney and Santorum was closing near the end of the poll and the narrowing could continue after Romney's win in Michigan and several miscues by Santorum.

"Romney gets a small boost out of it, but I think the bigger thing is it's a setback for Santorum," Geer said of Santorum's loss in Michigan. "He loses a little bit of steam and Romney gains it. That's the net difference."

The poll was conducted Feb. 16-22 before Santorum made controversial comments on access to contraception and tying the housing market collapse to higher gas prices.

"He [Santorum] decided to make some controversial comments that probably came back to haunt him a little bit," Geer said. "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."

State and national NAACP leaders, during a recent news conference, said Tennessee's voter identification law, which requires a photo ID for residents to vote, was a "racial disparity issue," The Tennessean reported.

"This state is seeking to go back to the days before we had the Voting Rights Act of 1965," NAACP State President Gloria Sweetlove said. "We stand here and ask every person to fight with us."

The NAACP said it thinks the law discriminates against certain populations, such as African-Americans, the poor, immigrants, women and senior citizens.

Proponents of the law, including state Rep. Debra Maggart, a Republican, say that isn't the case.

"The burden of having to go and get a photo ID was not greater than the burden of having a true, honest election," Maggart said.

Fifty-eight delegates are up for grabs in the proportional primary.

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