Santorum wins in Tennessee

Santorum wins in Tennessee

March 7th, 2012 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks to supporters at an election-night party in the gymnasium of Steubenville High School in Steubenville, Ohio, Tuesday, March 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

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Rick Santorum may not have the endorsement of politicians like Gov. Bill Haslam or U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, but his conservative credentials spoke loudly to average voters in Tennessee, who gave him the win in the presidential primary Tuesday.

With 90 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum had 37 percent to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 28 percent, despite endorsements from a number of key state leaders. In Hamilton County, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum took 31 percent of the vote while Romney took 29 percent.

"Tennessee voters are traditional conservatives who support constitutional, limited government, fiscal conservatism and traditional social values," said Mark West, head of the Hamilton County Tea Party, who supported Santorum. "We see a conservative candidate in Rick Santorum who has fought for conservative values without apology for his entire career."

Local voters praised Santorum for what they called his values-based conservative consistency.

"Santorum is the best man of what we have to vote for," said Dakota Johnson, who cast her vote at the Concord precinct in the Brainerd area. "I like that he's for a strong military and doesn't what to take funds away from it."

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich fell short in Tennessee, but still picked up 25 percent of the vote after a last-minute campaign sprint through Kingsport, Knoxville and Chattanooga.

But Gingrich's supporters turned all the focus to his landslide win in his home state of Georgia, where he has spent most of his time and money the last several weeks. With 93 percent of the precincts reporting, Gingrich picked up 47 percent of the vote, while Romney received 26 percent and Santorum took 20 percent.

"It was a terrific night for Newt in the South," said Susan Meyers, spokeswoman for the Gingrich campaign in the Southeast. "Tonight really fits in with his Southern strategy to take the nomination."

Meyers said Gingrich has already "hit the ground running" campaigning in Alabama, which will hold its primary on Monday.

Chris Lanier, head of Hamilton County for Newt, said he believed a last-minute rally held Monday evening for Gingrich at the Chattanooga Airport had a positive impact on local votes Tuesday.

"There was one 87-year-old woman who was just brimming with enthusiasm. She went to the rally last night and she has been telling all her friends to get out the vote for him," Lanier said.

Linda Weaver, who voted for Gingrich in Catoosa County, called him "the only man with any brains."

"He's incredibly smart and has better experience," she said. "I don't like what I hear from anyone else. Romney has too much money to know about the normal person."

Still, Weaver called Super Tuesday a "wash," and said none of the candidates is strong enough to run against President Barack Obama in the November general election.

"These candidates just aren't strong enough," she said. "Obama still has too much support."

Local Democrats took aim at Romney's loss in Tennessee, giving it more weight than Santorum's win.

"Mitt Romney's loss tonight shows that he is out of touch with Tennesseans and it raises serious concerns about his chances in November - if he can make it to the general election," said Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester.

Romney has committed only minimal campaign time and dollars toward Tennessee, making his first public appearance in the state at a rally Sunday in Knoxville.

Still, local supporters said they were won over by his economic savvy and the belief that he would be stronger competition for Obama.

"He did a good job in Massachusetts," said Pat O'Keefe, who cast her ballot at the Concord precinct. "I think he has a chance to beat Obama."

Though Obama was the lone Democrat on ballot in both Tennessee and Georgia for the Democratic presidential primary, a number of staunch supporters came out to show their support.

"I got my faith in Obama," said Ed Johnson, who cast his ballot at Boynton Terrace Apartments in Westside. "I got faith he's going to be there again."

Not everyone who went out to vote had such strong feelings. When Joel Clements voted at the Concord precinct in Hamilton County, he checked "uncommitted."

"I'm just not enthusiastic about the election this year," he said. "Politicians need to focus more on the economy and foreign policy and get off the social issues. It's important to let the party know we're still undecided."

Staff writers Tim Omarzu, Ansley Haman and Steve Hardy contributed to this story.