Mitt Romney hasn't won a state in the deep South and isn't likely to anytime soon. He hasn't even won a border state, and his campaign isn't predicting victory tonight in Tennessee. That doesn't mean, however, that Romney couldn't surprise former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and prevail in the Volunteer State.
As much as Romney has justifiably concentrated on winning the popular vote in Ohio (66 delegates), a victory in Tennessee (58 delegates) could do as much or more to propel him to the nomination."I think it's very favorable ground for him, and I have thought so for a long time," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "They like governing, mainstream conservatives. It's a long history. Look at Howard Baker, Lamar Alexander, Bill Frist, and now Bill Haslam."
Haslam is Tennessee's Republican governor, and Ayres handled his polling in 2010, when the biggest challenge was the primary. Haslam, the former mayor of Knoxville, faced a crowded GOP field led at first by Rep. Zach Wamp, a hard-edged conservative elected to Congress during the Republican revolution year of 1994.
Wamp started out ahead, but Haslam overtook him by emphasizing jobs, the economy, and placing less emphasis than Wamp on social issues. Haslam also outspent Wamp.
"We saw the potential for Bill against Wamp," said Ayres. "And we waxed him."
Santorum once had a sizable lead over Romney, but three recent polls have the race too close to call. With the Alabama (50 delegates) and Mississippi (40 delegates) primaries on March 10, Tennessee is the only state in the Confederacy that currently looks winnable for Romney.
In fact, Gingrich's long-shot strategy of becoming once-again Romney's chief rival is centered on a big win in Georgia and equally sizable victories a week later in Alabama and Mississippi. Gingrich has been surging in the Tennessee polls along with Romney, and his rise appears to be coming largely at Santorum's expense.
If Gingrich and Santorum divide the social conservative and tea party vote, Romney could eke out a win and give himself a prize in the South that a week ago appeared entirely out of reach. Even a close second might give Romney regional credibility he has heretofore lacked. The final poll taken before the August 2010 primary had Haslam ahead 36 percent to 25 percent with the rest of the field far behind. Haslam won with 47 percent to Wamp's 29 percent.
Though Haslam was known as a Republican, the mayor's post in Knoxville is nonpartisan, and Haslam's penchant for bipartisanship - like Romney's - sometimes raised eyebrows. A year before running for reelection as mayor, Haslam appointed his opponent in his first mayoral race, Madeline Rogero, director of community development. Haslam said he did so after reading historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, about President Lincoln's penchant for surrounding himself with political enemies during the Civil War. Haslam won reelection easily in 2007.
In addition to the Haslam race, Ayres sees parallels for Romney today in a race held that revolutionary GOP year of 1994. A political novice, lung- and heart-transplant surgeon Bill Frist, decided to run for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate in a crowded field of conservatives featuring Bob Corker. Frist positioned himself as a political outsider unfamiliar with Washington's ways but also as a successful surgeon and philanthropist. Corker and four other conservatives divided the conservative vote, and Frist won the primary - stunning the state's GOP establishment.
Frist later stunned the nation when he beat three-term Sen. James Sasser, the chairman of the Budget Committee who was in line to be majority leader. Corker later became mayor of Chattanooga and won a seat in the Senate in 2006.
Ayres was Frist's pollster in that race, too, and hee sees in that contest and Haslam's more recent victory over Wamp a way for Romney to score an unexpected victory. "He should have a decent shot," Ayres said. "What I'm not sure about is how much Boston has invested in Tennessee. That's the question."
The Romney campaign, based in Boston, has devoted more time and energy to Ohio, seeing its larger delegate haul and history of picking GOP nominees and presidents as the central Super Tuesday prize. Strategically, Romney's camp has looked at Tennessee and Georgia (76 delegates) as places to harvest delegates, not necessarily win the popular vote.
"It's about winning delegates first," said Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser. "We win as many delegates as we can and maybe the states will come."
In both states, Romney's team has concentrated on winning congressional districts - delegates are apportioned by victories in individual districts - rather than trying to wage a statewide campaign for the popular vote. That's why Romney's campaign stop over the weekend was in Atlanta, a big media market that reaches into or covers 10 of the state's 13 congressional districts.
In Tennessee, Romney's focus has been from Nashville in the center east into GOP territory that runs solidly to the Virginia and North Carolina borders. Just under half of tonight's primary vote will come from east Tennessee and its four congressional districts. Speaking of Virginia, Romney is headed to a big victory over Ron Paul there tonight. Neither Gingrich nor Santorum qualified for the Virginia ballot, undercutting the Romney victory.
Tennessee is a battleground in the South where, for the first time since South Carolina, Romney might have a chance to score a victory (he won Florida but its status as a swing state generally separates it from discussion of the GOP's Deep South voting patterns).
"Romney could use a win in the border South," Ayres said. "Tennessee is his best shot."