Will TN Republicans Be Relevant in Presidential Primary?

Mitt Romney, who finished third in Tennessee’s 2008 Republican presidential primary, has established a solid lead in organizing to win the state this year — if that will still matter on March 6.
And some of the state’s leading Republicans think that the political dust to be stirred in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and elsewhere will not be settled on that “Super Tuesday” two months from now. If so, Tennessee just might be in the national limelight for a moment.
Three other Southern states — Georgia, Texas and Virginia — also have primaries scheduled on March 6. But Tennessee could be far more competitive than the contest in those states.
In Virginia, only Romney and Ron Paul qualified to appear on the ballot, though Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have legal challenges pending. Texas is seen as a certain win for its governor, Rick Perry, should he still be in the race. And Georgia is the home state of Gingrich and a recent poll showed him the state’s favorite.

The consensus of national political pundits seems to be that Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, is certain to still be in contention and the question is whether Paul, Sanatorum, Gingrich, Perry, Jon Huntsman or some combination will keep him from having a lock on the nomination.
Tennessee Republican Chairman Chris Devaney, who is emphatically neutral in the contest, says that could happen.
“This has been a very different kind of presidential campaign,” he said in an interview. “I think a lot of people in the state are excited about being involved in the primary this year. … A lot depends, obviously, on the early states. … But there is a possibility we could really have a say-so this time.”
One reason for enhanced prospects of a protracted primary is a change in Republican National Committee rules that were intended to prod state Republican committees in early primary states to allocate delegates proportionate to the state vote and not have “winner-take-all” contests.
John Ryder, a Memphis attorney and Tennessee’s Republican national committeeman, was instrumental in pushing that rule change. And he thinks that, just maybe, it’s working.
“We hope so,” he said in an interview. “That was the purpose — to extend the contest long enough so that more states will be relevant, but not to extend it so long that the candidates were exhausted, both financially and otherwise.”
“(The rule change) makes it less likely that a candidate comes into March 6 with a commanding delegate lead … (but) maybe a media lead, a psychological lead or momentum or whatever you want to call it,” he said.
Should the nomination still be in question on March 6, the dream of Romney supporters is that their Tennessee organizational lead could give him the advantage that would push him over the top.
A substantial portion of the state’s GOP establishment has stepped forward to back Romney, including state legislators and perhaps Tennessee’s two best-known GOP fundraisers, businessmen Ted Welch of Nashville and Jim Haslam II of Knoxville, father of Gov. Bill Haslam. They serve as Romney’s Tennessee co-chairmen.
Bill Haslam is widely expected to join his father and brother aboard the Romney bandwagon at some point before March 6. He was a Romney supporter in 2008. Last week, the governor was still declining to endorse — but he declared that Romney is “clearly the frontrunner.”
“You can focus a lot on Iowa, but after that you don’t have the time to go spend a month anywhere. It’s fast. And so that depends on having the organization in place and I think that’s where Governor Romney has a big advantage,” Haslam said in comments aired by WPLN radio in Nashville.
Romney’s organizational strength was on display in the qualifying of committed delegates to the GOP convention from Tennessee last month. He has more delegates on the state ballot than any other candidate — though Gingrich, Paul and Perry have substantial numbers. Santorum qualified no delegates in Tennessee, though he could still win delegates — to be named later — if he wins enough votes in the primary.
Gingrich and Perry also have campaign organizations in place within the state. State Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville and Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport are co-chairs for Gingrich in the state while Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is the most prominent Perry backer.
Santorum has no apparent organization within the state at this point. His national campaign did not respond Friday to a reporter’s emailed inquires about the former U.S. senator’s efforts in Tennessee.
Despite Romney’s organizational advantage, Gingrich and Perry supporters contend their candidates have more appeal to the conservative nature of many Tennessee Republican voters. They note that Mike Huckabee, perceived as the more conservative candidate, won Tennessee’s primary in 2008, when it was held a month earlier than this year’s.
In 2008, Huckabee collected 34.5 percent of the Tennessee primary vote, followed by John McCain with 31.8 percent, Romney with 23.6 percent and Paul with 5.6 percent.

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