Who will nab Tennessee now that Thompson’s out?

On January 26, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

political ticker…

January 26, 2008

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — Within 30 minutes of Fred Thompson’s announcement that he was dropping his bid for the Republican nomination for president, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s phone began ringing.

Ramsey, who had campaigned heavily for Thompson, said he first heard from Mike Huckabee’s campaign. Then it was a personal call from Mitt Romney. Finally a representative for John McCain rang through.

Tennessee may not be among the largest states holding their primaries on Feb. 5, but Thompson’s departure on Tuesday suddenly put the Volunteer State into play at a time when the Republican field lacks a clear front-runner.

Ramsey, of Blountville, said he finds himself in unfamiliar territory after having long made up his mind in the race.

“I was for Fred, I studied Fred, I knew about Fred,” he said. “The others I hadn’t paid that much attention to because I was for Fred.”

Ramsey and other Republican officials are unsure about whom to endorse — or indeed whether to change their plans at all since Thompson remains on the ballot.

“I’m encouraging folks who believe in the principles Thompson espoused to vote for Fred and vote for his delegates,” said Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris. “I still think that’s the clearest choice.”

If Thompson garners more than about 20 percent of the Republican vote in the primary, his delegates will be sent to the GOP convention and could play an important role.

While that threshold may be a realistic goal, most are uncertain what to expect.

“One thing is certain, it won’t be a landslide for Thompson in Tennessee anymore,” laughed Norris, who represents several of Tennessee’s westernmost counties. “I’m sort of taking a wait and see attitude.”

Thompson struggled to gain traction with Republican primary voters in other states, but it was expected he would prevail in his home state.

“Fred was very popular in our state and I think he certainly would have won the Tennessee Republican primary if he was at it full bore,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “What (his departure) does is throw our state open to other candidates.”

But it’s not immediately clear which — if any — candidate can appeal to a broad section of Tennessee Republicans.

Michael Fitzgerald, a professor at the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee, said McCain could gain votes from those who agree with his military and foreign affairs stances, while Romney could garner support on his economic platform.

Huckabee’s appeal among evangelical Christians would likely be unaffected by Thompson’s decision, said Fitzgerald. About two-thirds of adults in the state identify themselves as evangelical Christians, according to figures from previous Middle Tennessee State University polls.

“Huckabee’s piece of the action is with more fundamentalist Christians, the evangelicals,” Fitzgerald said. “Fred’s being in or out wouldn’t make a difference with that group.”

Several state Democrats, who have an equally unpredictable primary on their hands, said they are uncertain about the effect Thompson’s withdrawal might have.

“I’ve never been able to figure out Republicans,” said state Senate Democrat Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis. “But any Tennessean who votes for Fred Thompson is wasting their vote and ought to consider voting in the Democratic primary.”

For some, the turmoil will have little effect because early voting began on Jan. 16 when Thompson was still in the race.

“I’ve already voted for him,” said state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville.

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