The state co-chairmen of Newt Gingrich’s campaign say they are now organizing an all-out effort, anticipating that Tennessee could wind up playing a key role in the Republican presidential nomination by the time voters go to the primary polls in March.
The co-chairmen are two sometimes controversial state legislators, Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville and state Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport. They say interest in Tennessee in the effort has accelerated dramatically as Gingrich surges in polls. Within the state, Gingrich is also coming from behind in organizing.
Real Clear Politics, which keeps track of all major national presidential polls, had the former House speaker listed as consensus frontrunner on Friday. When averaged, recent polls collectively show Gingrich 6.2 percentage points ahead of runner-up Mitt Romney, according to the organization’s website.
“Everything is really taking off,” said Campfield, contrasting the situation with “a couple of months ago” when Gingrich national campaign officials “were like, ‘Well, you know, we’re not doing too much
“Now, I think it’s been like drinking water out of a fire hose,” he said.
Both Campfield and Shipley said the surge for Gingrich seems tied to the tumble of Herman Cain, who had been the lead challenger to Romney for frontrunner status until allegations emerged that the married Cain had sexually harassed women and engaged in a longtime extramarital affair.
The two Republican legislators acknowledged that the thrice-married Gingrich has had personal problems in the past, but said he dealt with them openly and has put them behind him.
Shipley said he plans to travel to South Carolina next week and meet with Gingrich campaign organizers there to “see if the South Carolina footprint fits for Tennessee.”
“If it does, we’ll replicate it in Tennessee; if not, we’ll modify and adjust it for Tennessee,” he said.
South Carolina is the first Southern state to hold a Republican presidential primary, scheduled for Jan. 21. The Iowa caucus, set for Jan. 3, is the first actual event, followed by the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10.
Tennessee’s primary will be March 6, the same date as voting in nine other states including Georgia and Virginia. The Tennessee vote will determine allocation of 58 delegates to the Republican National Convention.
Shipley said a slate of Gingrich delegates for Tennessee is almost complete and the campaign is also close to having an organization with leadership in all 95 counties.
Romney’s campaign has named two of the state’s most prominent Republican fundraisers as chairmen of its effort in Tennessee — James “Jim” Haslam II, father of Gov. Bill Haslam, and Nashville businessman Ted Welch. The governor has not endorsed anyone yet, though Shipley said he anticipates Bill Haslam will eventually join his father and his brother, James “Jimmy” Haslam III, in backing Romney.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is heading the Tennessee campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has also been endorsed by six other Republican legislators.
Shipley and Campfield said they are confident that Gingrich will have a more broad-based, conservative “grass roots” bloc of backers than opponents.
“We’re going to have a ground game that will shock everyone,” said Shipley. “You’re going to see grassroots, extremely hard-working conservative leaders going at it from the ground up.”
Shipley and Campfield said they hope that, by March, Gingrich will be seen as the consensus conservative choice. Both said they are longtime admirers of him.
“Frankly, he’s the only cogent, solution-driven candidate,” said Shipley. “I’ve heard all of them and they are all well-intended, good people.
“But if you’re looking for the person who has the answers, well, he’s got them – he’s been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”
“All those other candidates sort of fell apart in debates,” said Campfield. “For Newt, that’s always been his strong suit. Everybody’s always called him the smartest guy in the room.”
“While he has occasionally said some outrageous things – I’ve had a little history of that myself – in the end he has the knowledge and that always comes through,” Campfield said.
Campfield and Shipley said they regret that talk of sexual improprieties have beset Cain, even though that has apparently helped their candidate.
“I think it’s a darn shame that there is a media-driven presumption of guilt that begins to eat away at the credibility of a man,” said Shipley, adding that something of the sort happened to him with publicity over a TBI investigation that amounted to “nonsense.”
The investigation involved suggestions that Shipley and a colleague improperly used their status as legislators to have the licenses of three nurses reinstated after they were revoked.
Still, Shipley said “if he (Cain) is guilty of all that stuff, he needs to come out and let people make a decision.”
As for Gingrich’s past personal problems, Shipley said, “As a Christian, the thing you always ask is: ‘Has there been a conversion? If the man made a mistake, is he doing better?’ There’s every indication that is the case.”
Campfield said that in Cain’s case “a lot of it was undercover and is supposedly being exposed.” In contrast, he said, “Newt was always up front and open…and more or less asked forgiveness.”
“It’s true a lot of people don’t like the fact he’s been married before,” said Campfield. “But he’s not running for Husband of the Year . Jimmy Carter may have been a great husband and a nice guy, but he was a terrible president.”