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Forget Ohio. For Mitt Romney, Tennessee is real Super Tuesday prize.

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich are in a three-way tie in Tennessee. It would be a huge symbolic victory if Romney were to win this Southern state on Super Tuesday. Here's why. 

By Staff writer / March 6, 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets supporters at a town hall meeting at Taylor Winfield in Youngstown, Ohio, Monday, March 5.

Gerald Herbert/AP

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Atlanta

On Super Tuesday, with Georgia probably tucked away in the pocket of native son Newt Gingrich, the three-way tie between Mitt Romney, Mr. Gingrich, and Rick Santorum in Tennessee has emerged as one of the biggest symbolic contests of the Republican primary season.

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A win for Mr. Romney in a bona fide Southern state could mean he is at last making inroads with the evangelical Christian and hard-right voters who've so far held at arm's length the former governor of the liberal bastion of Massachusetts.

“My question is, when is Romney going to win a red state?” says Dave Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University, in South Carolina. “In terms of winning the base, it would be really more significant for Romney to beat Santorum in Tennessee than in Ohio. It would be huge.”

How huge?

“Romney could seal this deal if he takes not only Ohio, but Tennessee,” CNN contributor Alex Castellanos said Tuesday.

The Southern states contain a larger percentage than average of social conservatives and evangelical voters, along with a healthy mix of independents mistrustful of perceived Yankee RINOs (Republicans in name only). About two-thirds of GOP voters in Tennessee, for instance, are evangelicals. Romney has so far performed 15 percentage points better among nonevangelical voters than among evangelicals, according to the Pew Center for Religion in Public Life.

The Romney campaign, of course, is playing down the Southern contests.

“I don’t know if we can win Georgia or Tennessee, but I know that we can take delegates out of there,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney strategist, told the conservative Newsmax news site. “More important than winning this state or that state is achieving the requisite number of delegates to obtain the nomination.”

That caution is what Mr. Santorum and Gingrich hope to exploit at the polls on Super Tuesday. Southern-born Gingrich, for one, needs a win in Tennessee Tuesday and wins in Alabama and Mississippi next week to help carry him through to Texas, where a victory might open the possibility of a brokered national convention. Meanwhile, Santorum is in a dead tie with Romney in Ohio.

On the campaign trail in Tennessee last week, Santorum appealed directly to conservative value voters by saying, among other things, that “broken families,” in which children are born to unwed parents, are a drain on America's treasury. “Family is the foundation of our country,” he said in Hixon, Tenn. “We don’t need the government to fix things for us!”

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