published Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Tennessee proved tough to woo for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney


by Chris Carroll
Republican presidential candidate and  former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney smiles as he addresses supporters at his Super Tuesday campaign rally in Boston.
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney smiles as he addresses supporters at his Super Tuesday campaign rally in Boston.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

HAMILTON COUNTY VOTE TOTALS

Name: Votes—Percentage

Rick Santorum: 10,201—31.49

Mitt Romney: 9,359—28.89

Newt Gingrich: 8,950—27.63

Ron Paul: 3,386—10.45

Source: Hamilton County Election Commission


TENNESSEE VOTE TOTALS

Rick Santorum: 205,012—37.2

Mitt Romney: 154,911—28.1

Newt Gingrich: 132,072—23.9

Ron Paul: 49,801—9.0

Source: The New York Times

Republicans from Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, North Chattanooga, Signal Mountain and Walden gave Mitt Romney decisive precinct victories in Hamilton County on Tuesday, and a correspondingly prosperous group supported the former Massachusetts governor statewide.

But powerful constituencies don't always collect: Romney won just three Tennessee counties.

Rick Santorum? Hamilton County and 90 others.

Romney performed best in Tennessee's wealthiest pockets, leading experts to believe the presumed GOP front-runner won't charm the Harrisons, Hixsons and Soddy-Daisys of other Bible Belt states that have upcoming primaries.

"Any Southern state for Romney is going to be an uphill battle," said David E. Lewis, a Vanderbilt University political science professor who studies the presidency. "How does he deal with rural voters? How does he deal with white evangelicals? These are not areas where he tends to do well."

Santorum coasted to a 9-point Volunteer State victory. Before the vote, Romney touted several establishment endorsements, including Gov. Bill Haslam's, and his "super PAC" allies outspent Santorum's 16-to-1 in Tennessee advertising, according to the latest filings.

But Romney's biggest victory here -- a 3-point win -- came in Williamson County, the state's wealthiest. He also won Loudon and Davidson counties, Tennessee's seventh- and 12th-richest counties.

Otherwise, Santorum cleaned house, winning all but one of Tennessee's 67 poorest counties -- rural, evangelical, majority-white ones with median household incomes of $40,000 or less.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of Georgia, won Marion County, the lone Tennessee county that didn't go to Santorum or Romney.

It was bleakest for Romney in Tennessee's five poorest counties, where in two cases he finished third and lost by at least 19 percentage points. While Clay, Grundy, Johnson, Lake and Hancock counties are rural and count their votes in the hundreds, experts said it doesn't bode well for Romney's prospects in Alabama, America's ninth-poorest state, and Mississippi, the nation's poorest, both of which host presidential primaries Tuesday.

A Rasmussen poll released Friday found a three-way virtual tie for first in Alabama. Gingrich is up one point over Santorum and two points over Romney, who said "Morning, y'all," and mentioned his breakfast of "a biscuit and some cheesy grits" at a Friday morning campaign stop in Jackson, Miss.

Richard Corning, a political science professor at the University of Alabama, said the nationwide delegate math ahead overwhelmingly favors Romney, but "his flaws as a candidate in the South" will keep Santorum and Gingrich in the race long after Alabama and Mississippi vote.

"In the rural and poorer areas here, Romney's going to struggle," Corning said.

Since winning the most delegates on Super Tuesday, Romney's campaign has attempted to bump Gingrich and Santorum out of the race -- Romney officials say it's impossible for either man to win enough delegates to secure the nomination.

But experts said Romney's Tennessee weakness will manifest itself in primaries in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Kentucky and Arkansas, prolonging the GOP primary, sapping Romney's financial resources and allowing President Barack Obama to court independents as the Republican field tries to out-tea-party one another.

"The Republican candidates are beating each other up," said Vanderbilt's Lewis. "The longer this thing goes on, the more difficult the challenge of pulling the party back together again."

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