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.
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.”
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!”
In practical electoral terms, the South has become to the Republican Party what it was to Democrats in the first two-thirds of the 20th century: a sure bet in presidential elections. But because Romney can seal the nomination without the votes of the Southern states, most of the Super Tuesday focus has been on the traditional battleground state of Ohio, a heartland bellwether.
“Romney losing in Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi – I don't think anybody would interpret that as those people won't be voting Republican come November,” says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, in Athens. “After all, the only way Obama is going to carry some of these Southern states is if evangelicals were so alienated [by Romney] that they sat out the election, in which case even a state like Georgia might tip" toward President Obama.
Leading up to Super Tuesday, Romney did swing through Tennessee and Georgia this week. Polls in Tennessee, especially, showed him catching up with Santorum, who only a week ago enjoyed a 20-point lead in the Volunteer State. A We Ask America telephone poll over the weekend, however, showed a three-way tie in Tennessee.
Romney's focus through the South? The economy. “The economy is what I do, it’s what I know,” he said at one Tennessee stop. “I haven’t just read about it, I haven’t just debated it, I haven’t just talked about it in subcommittees.”
“This primary is a little different than most,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Romney backer, said Monday. “People are making up their mind later, and that’s why you’ve seen the volatility of this or that candidate being ahead. It’s almost like they’re waiting until the last minute to shop for Christmas.... We feel good about the late direction this is going for Governor Romney.”
The symbolism of a Romney win in Tennessee would be dramatic, analysts say. For the first time, Romney could start talking about being a national candidate, having won a contest in all regions of the country. (Many don't count Florida, which Romney did win, as a Southern state.) Remaining candidates would suddenly start seeing their contributions dry up, they say.
But even if Romney struggles in Tuesday's Southern primaries, and continues to underperform in the South, he would have ways, if nominated, to quickly burnish his image in the region. One would be a vice-presidential pick from a Southern state.
“Romney may turn out to be the right combination for the South, especially if he balances the ticket with somebody like [former Secretary of State] Condi Rice, who is a Southerner from Alabama who could excite women, could excite African-Americans, and could excite evangelicals,” says Mr. Woodard at Clemson. “There are a lot of combinations that could work for Romney.”