When Tennessee joined forces with other states to create “Super Tuesday” in 1984, they hoped for a primary like the one coming up March 6.
The idea was that by bunching primary elections in a single day, all the states would gain increased relevancy.
But the Republican primary in Tennessee has historically lacked drama. It was a tight race in 2008, when Mike Huckabee edged John McCain — but McCain already had a convincing lead after a win in Florida.
This year, though, the fight for the Volunteer State delegates — which are awarded proportionally — is shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested primary races in recent history.
“As it stands right now, this will be the first time in a long time Tennessee has really made a difference in the Republican presidential primary,” Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney said. “All four candidates recognize that Tennessee will matter. ... One way or the other, they are going to be actively campaigning in our state.”
One way could be Gov. Mitt Romney’s method of buying TV time, soliciting big-time donors and tapping the state’s first family, including Gov. Bill Haslam, to lead his Tennessee campaign.
The other way might be like Sen. Rick Santorum’s effort — a growing but comparatively cash-strapped campaign that relies on shaking hands and the indelible emphasis on family values.
Those two, joined by a surge-hungry Newt Gingrich and libertarian Ron Paul, are eyeing the state.
All of the campaigns have their Tennessee talking points: Santorum leads the latest poll, Romney has the most organization and resources, Gingrich is making strides in fundraising, and Paul is cultivating the grassroots.
So as March 6 nears by the second, Tennessee Republicans are asking: “Are you ready to rumble?”
On a recent afternoon, Santorum supporter and state organizer Kay White of Johnson City fielded a conference call from two elderly women. They had decided to vote for Gingrich, after certain media reports said Santorum didn’t have a chance to beat President Barack Obama in the general election.
“From the get-go, I have been for Santorum’s principles, issues,” one of the women said. “You know, all along, I thought we needed to go more with the person who is doing right — rather than following what people tell us to do.”
And with his surge in the polls, White said she’s heard from a lot of people who are flipping to Santorum, who has built his campaign on social conservative values.
“The generalization of the people of Tennessee is that they are wonderful, God-fearing people and we’re looking for a leader like that,” White said. “I call him the heartbeat of America.”
Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) is supporting Santorum — and also believes that people are tiring of Romney and Gingrich’s styles of politicking.
“It’s kind of like a girl out dating folks,” Dunn said. “The first person she dates has a lot of money and a flashy car, but after a while she realizes there’s not a whole lot to the guy. Then she dates the guy who is in the rock band, and everything’s all exciting, but after a while, she says, ‘You know, he’s not the kind of guy I’d like to raise children with.’
“Then finally, she gets back to the boy next door who’s been there the whole time, and she discovers him as true love. And true love is breaking out in Tennessee for Rick Santorum.”
While “true love” isn’t a typical choice on surveys, Santorum led the latest poll in Tennessee — despite only raising $38,367 in the state.
“He may very well win Tennessee because he is very in-sync with people who vote in Republican primaries in Tennessee — much more so than Mitt Romney. He’s become the viable alternative as opposed to Newt,” said Richard Land, a radio host and president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Land acknowledged that Santorum, despite increased media attention and scrutiny, is still a relative unknown — and that his next steps will be crucial.
“It’s up to Rick to sell himself. If I were advising him, I would say don’t talk about Satan, talk about evil. Talk about traditional values vs. postmodernism and let people define themselves,” Land said.
While the spotlight has shifted to Santorum, Romney still has the most organization and support in Tennessee. The former Massachusetts governor is the only candidate with a full slate of delegates — which Tennessee GOP chairman Devaney said could help his campaign.
“It shows that you have some sort of organization. ... it’s a good thing for you to have delegates on the ballot,” Devaney said.
Conversely, Santorum didn’t have any delegates register by the end-of-the-year deadline — meaning the campaign has to work with the state executive committee to fill those spots.
Haslam, who was officially tapped as Romney’s campaign chair earlier this month, said Romney’s staying power and fiscal conservatism makes him the right choice for Tennessee.
“You’ve seen several different people come up and be the challenger. The one consistent on that is that Romney has been the person they’ve been challenging,” Haslam told The City Paper.
“He has the right experience, and he has the ability to take on the biggest issue we have in the country, which is the deficit. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is spending a lot more than we’ve been bringing in.”
The pro-Romney Super PAC, Restore Our Future, is the only purchaser of media advertising in Tennessee as of press time, according to the Federal Election Commission. Just last week, the PAC spent more than $500,000 in Tennessee on Internet advertising and “media buys” specifically targeted at opposing Santorum.
Romney has also raised nearly $1 million in campaign financing in Tennessee — more than three times as much as the nearest challenger, Ron Paul.
“We’re excited about the support and enthusiasm [in Tennessee] for Gov. Romney and ... leading up to Super Tuesday, we’re going to try to get our message out with our staffers and our volunteers that Mitt Romney is the best person to defeat President Obama in November,” said Amanda Henneberg, regional press secretary for the Romney campaign.
She also said Tennessee Republican voters should look at Romney’s background for proof of his conservative values.
“Voters can look at how he governed Massachusetts. He was a conservative governor in a very Democratic state,” Henneberg. “He consistently supported traditional marriage, he balanced budgets without raising taxes. It’s a very conservative record and he did that in a very Democratic state.”
Political analysts have pointed to Bible Belt states (Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia) on Super Tuesday as Gingrich’s only chance at making up ground in the primary race. Gingrich’s campaign might feel the same.
So far, Gingrich is the only presidential candidate with a scheduled visit to Middle Tennessee. The former speaker of the House will be making the rounds at the state Capitol on Monday, hosting a talk on health care, participating in a meet-and-greet with state legislators and media, and holding a public rally on the East Grounds.
Rep. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) is the co-chair of Gingrich’s campaign — and said he presents a strong choice for Tennesseans who care about the economy.
“Who’s going to be not just a business man, but actually pro-business? I think that’s Newt,” Campfield said. “He’s a very creative, dynamic guy, with a lot of ideas for moving our economy forward.”
Campfield, after the cover for this week’s City Paper was created, compared Gingrich to fictional boxing champ Rocky Balboa.
“If you look at the history of this Republican primary, we’ve had almost half a dozen people who have been leaders at one time or another. It’s been very fluid,” Campfield said. “But Newt Gingrich is sort of like the Rocky Balboa [of the Republican primary]. He’s been hit and knocked down, but he keeps getting back up and keeps fighting, and I think he’s going to do pretty well.”
Paul supporters held an event at Dan McGuinness Pub on Demonbreun Street last week, aptly titled “RonPaulapalusa,” to help boost grassroots efforts across the state in time for Super Tuesday.
Barry Donegan, who is Paul’s regional campaign manager for Tennessee, said the demand has been “overwhelming” for Paul yard signs.
“I think Tennessee is going to be grassroots vs. grassroots ... and we’ve had a pretty deep organization [from the beginning],” Donegan said.
It was unclear, as of press time, whether Paul would make any campaign stops in Tennessee, but Donegan said the national campaign has put the state-level organizers on notice.
According to Donegan, Tennessee’s percentage-based allocation of delegates could make the state attractive to Paul.
“We’ve really been focusing on delegate strategy. Tennessee is the Volunteer State and could be a good place for Paul to campaign,” Donegan said. “We trust the national campaign to make that decision.”
That’s one Tennessee-based decision, along with many others, that campaigns will be forced to make over the next 10 days.