The co-chairman of Newt Gingrich’s Tennessee campaign changed his allegiance Saturday to Rick Santorum, saying he hopes to set an example that leads to conservatives aligning behind a single candidate against “establishment Republican” Mitt Romney.
State Sen. Stacey Campfield’s surprise move comes with Santorum leading in Tennessee polls though under attack within the state from both pro-Romney forces and Gingrich in a frenetic finale of candidate competition for votes in Tuesday’s presidential preference primary.
The presidential campaign had been somewhat sedate in Tennessee until last week, when the three leading Republican candidates ramped up their efforts with television ads, radio ads, phone call banks, direct mail, a swarm of surrogate campaigners – Gov. Bill Haslam leading the way for Romney – plus some personal campaigning.
Romney visits Knoxville today while Gingrich plans a campaign trip through East Tennessee state Monday.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, traveled through the state last week, including a stop in Nashville where he had a Wednesday evening meeting with about 20 Republican legislators, according to state Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, who arranged the gathering as the only state legislator publicly backing Santorum at the time. Eleven legislators have subsequently joined Dunn as official Santorum backers.
Campfield said Santorum called him personally earlier, even though he was an outspoken advocate of Gingrich and co-chair of the former U.S. House speaker’s campaign in the state. After he met with the other legislators, Campfield said he met separately with Santorum, who “asked me to leave Newt Gingrich and support him.
“He made some very valid points,” said Campfield.
A key point, he said: Gingrich was running at 13 percent in a Middle Tennessee State University poll with 20 percent of the vote needed to get any delegates in statewide voting. A conservative voting for Gingrich, he said, could thus be wasting a vote that could have helped Santorum gain delegates.
The same poll showed Santorum at 40 percent and Romney at 19 percent. Ron Paul, who has a core of active supporters within the state but no active campaign beyond the Internet, had 11 percent support in the poll.
The most recent poll, conducted by the research firm YouGov and completed Thursday, shows Santorium at 37 percent, Romney at 30, Gingrich at 19 and Paul at 15.
“Rick said if we keep dividing up the conservative field forever, we’ll never have a conservative president,” Campfield said in an interview.
After a couple of days contemplation, Campfield decided that Santorum was right.
“I like Newt and I think he’s a great leader. But I don’t think it’s his time and I think he won’t do what is necessary to win this election,” Campfield said. “There are times in politics when you have to make a decision on what you want and what you can get… I think Rick Santorum is the best chance we can get to have a conservative president.”
Campfield said three of the five people on the 2nd Congressional District ballot Tuesday as candidates to become committed Gingrich delegates to the Republican National Convention have joined him in switching to Santorum supporters. He listed them as Leonard W. Brown, Aaron Garcia Marguiles and Scott David Smith.
State Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who shared the title of co-chairman of the Gingrich Tennessee campaign until now, said Campfield’s switch was “unfortunate” but he would not criticize the senator because “we need to maintain a working relationship in the Legislature.”
Maria Zack, southeastern coordinator of Gingrich’s campaign, said that had Campfield called her before his decision, she would have told him the premise of his move is wrong and that Santorum is sagging in polls while “Newt is taking off.”
She said the Campfield move would have little impact on Gingrich’s effort in the state since Shipley has had the real leadership role over “over our No. 1 team in the country, a rock solid, very capable set of individuals.”
“That’s just Stacey being Stacey,” Zack said. “Sen. Campfield has been very busy in the (legislative) session and I’m honestly not sure how engaged he was in the campaign.”
While Campfield praised Santorum’s “strong conservative credentials,” those credentials were under attack by Romney bakers and, on a smaller basis, the Gingrich campaign.
Leader in all presidential campaign spending on TV ads in Tennessee is Restore Our Future, the Super PAC set up to support Romney, which had paid out more than $1.6 million for ads attacking Santorum, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission through Friday. That includes a $430,360 buy on Tuesday and $290,448 buy on Friday.
The most recent Romney Super PAC TV ad in Tennessee includes a picture of a glowering President Obama and a declaration that “Obama knows he can beat Rick Santorum.” It also has the narrator saying Santorum presents himself as a “principled conservative,” but that he voted in favor of federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
There is a video clip of Santorum saying he is against Planned Parenthood funding, but did vote for it when incorporated into bills including other provisions and then the statement, “Twenty years in Washington changed Rick Santorum’s principles.”
Shipley said the heavy attacks from Romney backers against Santorum stand to benefit Gingrich and perhaps backfire against Romney in the process. He said internal Gingrich polling indicates the former House speaker’s stature has been rising among voters, especially in the South, and Gingrich’s focus on the state with personal appearances – coupled with a network of 7,000 signed-up supporters – will serve him well on Tuesday.
The Super PAC supporting Gingrich has spent about $250,000 in Tennessee, mostly on radio and Internet ads, while the Super PAC backing Santorum has spent only about $80,000, according to the FEC filings.
Under federal election law, the Super PAC spending is classified as an “independent expenditure” that must be reported within 24 hours. But the campaigns themselves will not have to disclosure their February and March expenditures until April and campaign spokesman declined to voluntarily provide figures.
The Gingrich campaign, however, told ABC News that it has paid for 150,000 “robo calls” in Tennessee to voters wherein a woman tells voters answering the phone, “As a senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum cozied up to union bosses and voted for the AFL-CIO against a national right-to-work bill that would have let workers opt out of paying union dues – union dues that hurt families and small businesses.”
Jon Parker, state field director for Santorum, said attack ads have not worked.
“The ads haven’t moved his (Romney’s) number at all,” Parker said, contending Romney’s base cannot grow much in conservative Tennessee.
“While the establishment Republicans like the governor are supporting Romney, clearly the people aren’t,” he said.
The governor, who is officially chairman of the Romney campaign in Tennessee, hit the campaign trail in earnest for the first time last week on behalf last week with visits to Memphis, Knoxville and Tri-Cities as well as an event in Nashville.
Haslam and Bill Hagerty, a 25-year Romney friend who runs the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said in an interview Friday they believe Romeny is surging in support after wins in Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday.
Haslam said that Tennessee Republicans have only become focused on the race during the past few days and, the more they focus, the better they will perceive Romney as a conservative in tune with their values.
“In the end, being conservative is not about giving a fiery talk that says here’s what I think about it. It’s about what you’ve actually done,” Haslam said.
With his background in business and as a governor “working out hard budget issues and making sure people get the most service for the least dollars,” Romney has met that standard as an “achiever” worthy of becoming the nation’s chief executive, he said.
In Michigan, Democrats were urged by some in their party to crossover and vote in the Republican party for Santorum, according to media reports. Tennessee also has an “open primary” system that would be open to Democrats voting.
State Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester and Republican Chairman Chris Devaney both said they do not anticipate any significant number of crossover votes in Tennessee, though Obama is unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Forrester said Tennessee Democrats should vote in their own primary. Devaney said the open primary has been a voter recruitment tool for Republicans in the past since, after voting in the primary, there may be a tendency to follow through in November.
Campfield’s defection to Santorum comes with officials of the national Santorum campaign promoting the idea of Gingrich getting out of the race after Super Tuesday.
“If we could ever make this where we have all the conservatives and tea party supporters behind us as one candidate against Mitt Romney, we’ll win the nomination,” John Brabender, Santorum’s top advisor, told the Associated Press last week.
Asked if Santorum needs Gingrich to drop out, Brabender replied, “We either need that or we need Gingrich’s supporters” to shift in Santorum’s direction.
The AP story notes that Santorum has made a point of not criticizing him and even praising him, including remarks at Knoxville on Wednesday, the same day Campfield met with the former U.S. senator in Nashville.
(Note: This is an unedited and slightly revised version of a story written for Sunday’s News Sentinel. The well-edited version is HERE.)
Campfield’s blog post on his decision is HERE.