WASHINGTON ” Leading in a number of national polls, Rick Santorum is moving quickly to put in place a formal campaign operation in Tennessee as the state prepares to take its turn in the fight for the GOP presidential nomination.
In just the past couple of weeks, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania has opened campaign offices in Knoxville and Johnson City and has tapped Knoxville native Jon Parker as his state field director.
Last weekend, volunteers manning a phone bank in Johnson City called thousands of voters across the state to firm up support for the candidate and spread his message of conservatism and family values. Supporters also are planning door-to-door campaigns in several parts of the state this weekend.
Santorum himself will return to the state Saturday when he headlines a tea party event in Chattanooga.
“We’re hard at work,” said Parker, who is coordinating the grassroots, volunteer network already working on Santorum’s behalf. “I would imagine you will start seeing an awful lot of signs going up out there very shortly as you drive around.”
Voters in Tennessee and nine other states will cast their ballots for president in the Super Tuesday primary on March 6. While most of the national attention will focus on potential swing states like Ohio and Virginia, state officials say the hard-fought battle for the GOP nomination gives Tennessee its best opportunity in years to be a real player in the presidential contest.
“Just looking back on history, I think it has been a long time since Tennessee had a strong voice in choosing the Republican nominee,” said Chris Devaney, chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.
Santorum, who surged in national polls after winning primaries in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, is also the front-runner in Tennessee, according to one poll. An American Research Group poll of “likely” voters put him in first place with 34 percent, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (27 percent), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (16 percent) and Texas Congressman Ron Paul (13 percent).
Santorum’s rise has come so rapidly ” just a few weeks ago, he sat at the bottom of most polls and was considered an afterthought ” that he has had to scramble to get a campaign team on the ground in states like Tennessee, where the primary races are fast approaching.
Santorum has no delegates committed to him on the Tennessee ballot, but if he wins the state primary, the state GOP will work with his campaign to come up with a list of delegates, Devaney said.
It should come as no surprise that Santorum is polling well in Tennessee, given his opposition to abortion and his role in reforming the welfare system in the 1990s, said state Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and Santorum backer.
“When I hear him talk, you can tell he has thought things out, that he’s trying to both answer a question and inform the public ” almost like there is more of a dialogue instead of a sound bite to score political points,” Dunn said. “I think there’s a lot of sincerity in his responses.”
Though the well-funded Romney entered the race as the front-runner, Santorum has soared past him in many national polls.
“It’s one of those things where people look at the other candidates, and it’s almost like, you know, a girl dating guys,” Dunn said. “They start out with somebody who’s got a flashy car and a wad of cash, and then they realize that’s nice but there’s not a whole lot to them. And then, they date the guy in the rock band because it’s all-exciting. But you might come to the conclusion that I don’t want to raise a family with them.
“And then, all of a sudden, they notice the boy next door. He’s got it all. And I think that’s why people have come home. You’ve got a guy who’s strong on the issues, steady and just a great guy.”
Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, said Santorum is the most conservative candidate of those who are still in the race. Romney, on the other hand, has “a trust issue” with voters, West said.
“Romney’s past, his track record, is no conservative track record ” absolutely not,” he said. “When someone has lived one way their entire adult life and then a couple of years before they run for president (in 2008), they begin to transition to ‘conservative values’ ” one has to wonder, ‘Is it a legitimate change or is it an expedient change?’”
Romney supporter Susan Richardson Williams of Knoxville said Tennessee conservatives are fairly divided over “the more known conservatives” in the race ” Santorum, Gingrich and Paul. Romney will take the moderate vote, she said, but whether that is enough for him to win the state remains in question.
For Williams, Romney’s business background, his record as a Republican governor in a Democratic state, and his stewardship of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City have given him the skill set needed to be an effective president.
“Whether or not that translates into being a politician and winning the nomination remains to be seen,” she said. “But if I had to pick resumes of the person who is the most qualified as president of the United States, certainly contrasting that with Barack Obama, Mitt Romney wins hands down. Had we known that the economy was going to tank like it did in 2008, Mitt Romney should have been the nominee then.”
While the fight for the GOP nomination appears for the moment to be a two-man race between Romney and Santorum, no one should count Gingrich out, said state Sen. Stacey Campfield, a Knoxville Republican and co-chairman of Gingrich’s Tennessee campaign.
Gingrich, who is scheduled to attend a fundraiser in Franklin next Monday, enjoyed a brief surge in national polls after upsetting Romney in the South Carolina primary, but has fallen back to third place in most polls.
Still, “if you look at how many times he has been down, it’s like a ‘Rocky’ movie,” Campfield said. “The guy just keeps getting back up and coming back after it. He keeps getting off the mat and keeps on swinging.”
Besides, “people know Newt,” Campfield said. “He’s a creative person and willing to stand up for conservative values. I think that resonates with a lot of people in Tennessee.”