The hurricane surrounding the GOP presidential race is about to make landfall in Tennessee.
Along with residents of nine other states, Tennesseans will go to the polls on March 6 to cast votes in the largest collective primary election of 2012, known as “Super Tuesday.”
Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Vermont and Virginia will also be holding primaries.
Although early voting is already underway in Tennessee, candidates are continuing to lay the groundwork to sway voters across the state. On Thursday, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum was the first candidate to be scheduled to make a public campaign stop in the state as the keynote speaker for the Chattanooga Tea Party’s Liberty Forum on Feb. 28.
Mark West, president of the organization, said Santorum was the first of “several” presidential candidates to accept an invitation to attend the group’s third anniversary gathering.
“We already have more than 20 confirmed officials and candidates at every level of government,” West said. “Sen. Santorum’s decision is just icing on our anniversary cake.”
Santorum has enjoyed a recent surge in national polling, vaulting to the top spot among the remaining candidates in recent days. A poll conducted by the American Research Group between Feb. 8-9 showed the same trend among Tennessee Republicans, who said they preferred Santorum over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points.
Romney, who received the endorsement of Gov. Bill Haslam last month and tapped the governor as his Tennessee campaign chairman on Monday, has already had $184,000 spent for ads across the state on his behalf by a super PAC backing him. And Santorum has reportedly purchased ads in Tennessee as well, though his campaign has not disclosed the total cost or the markets in which they will air.
Dr. David Folz, professor of public administration and state and local politics at the University of Tennessee, said the importance of Tennessee on Super Tuesday would become clearer following the upcoming primary in Michigan, scheduled for Feb. 28. Folz added his surprise at the success of the Santorum campaign, given the candidate’s lower funding levels than others.
“People will be interested to see how Michigan unfolds,” Folz said. “If Santorum is able to hold off Romney there, I think that gives his candidacy a lot of momentum going into Super Tuesday . Given his funding, it really should have suggested that the campaign wouldn’t be as strong as it is. But it’s still viable, strong and apparently growing in popularity.”
When asked if Haslam’s endorsement of Romney could play a factor in the upcoming primary, Folz said it would bring visibility to the campaign but would not determine the outcome.
“While it’s not unimportant, it’s not among the most important factors that will motivate people to go to the polls,” he said.
Two days after Santorum visits Chattanooga, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is scheduled to attend a private fundraiser in Franklin. As of Thursday, neither Romney nor Rep. Ron Paul had announced plans for upcoming visits to Tennessee.
Updated @ 8:51 a.m. on 02/17/12 to correct a style issue.