Tenn. gets candidates’ attention

On January 28, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

Picture clouded after Thompson dropped out of Republican race By Tom Humphrey, KnoxNews.com January 28, 2008 NASHVILLE – While the Democratic presidential primary in Tennessee seems to mirror the increasingly combative contest elsewhere, things on the Republican side have moved into a melee more muddled than even the national political puzzle. For candidates of both […]

Picture clouded after Thompson dropped out of Republican race

By Tom Humphrey, KnoxNews.com
January 28, 2008

NASHVILLE – While the Democratic presidential primary in Tennessee seems to mirror the increasingly combative contest elsewhere, things on the Republican side have moved into a melee more muddled than even the national political puzzle.

For candidates of both parties, Tennessee has become a strategic piece of ground in the 22-state battle for delegates on Feb. 5.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who many Democrats believe has an edge over Barack Obama and John Edwards in the state, illustrated Tennessee’s importance to her hopes with weekend visits to Nashville and Memphis after losing to Obama on Saturday in South Carolina. Edwards is to visit Chattanooga and Nashville today.

Republican Mike Huckabee also is scheduled to campaign in Nashville today, while the son of Mitt Romney is slated to join some of the state’s best-known GOP fundraisers at another Nashville gathering. Ron Paul’s son, Rand Paul, was expected to be at a Nashville rally Sunday.

For Republicans, the Tennessee picture is clouded because of Fred Thompson’s withdrawal after early voting was under way and with his name still on the ballot.

Something similar happened in 1996, when Lamar Alexander withdrew as a candidate with his name still on the ballot. Alexander urged Tennesseans not to vote for him and endorsed Bob Dole.

Still, Alexander got 11.3 percent of the state’s vote. Dole got 51 percent.

This year, Thompson has not yet endorsed anyone, and his longtime friend and aide, Bob Davis, says he will not do so “anytime soon.”

Indeed, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Mark Norris is apparently not alone in declaring that he still intends to vote for the withdrawn Thompson. Asked if he would urge others to vote for Thompson, Norris replied, “You bet!”

Norris and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who already has voted for Thompson, are among 24 people listed on the ballot as candidates for election as delegates representing Thompson at the Republican National Convention. Their chances of being elected as delegates depend on Thompson winning at least 20 percent of the vote.

Huckabee, Romney and John McCain appear to have the best chances for beating the withdrawn candidate in Tennessee and apparently are poised to visit the state and run campaign ads after Tuesday’s Florida primary.

All have active backers well known in state GOP circles, some of them former Thompson supporters. There is an odd mix of positions among such people.

U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. of Knoxville, for example, said he already has voted for Thompson in early voting. But he added that “of all the people now running, I think Mitt Romney would make the best president.”

Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, a longtime Thompson mentor who played a key role in his campaign, is now backing McCain.

So is B.C. “Scooter” Clippard of Nashville, who led Thompson’s national fundraising efforts, then switched last week to become a national finance co-chairman for McCain.

The Arizona senator, Clippard said, is “a true American hero who appeals to a broad range of folks,” in contrast to Romney’s reliance on personal wealth to finance his campaign while cultivating “the big-money people” and Huckabee’s dependence on evangelical Christians and social conservatives.

Huckabee will focus on Tennessee, according to his campaign manager, John “Chip” Saltsman, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairman who also is on the Feb. 5 ballot as a candidate for election as a Huckabee delegate.

Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, said he supports Huckabee because of the candidate’s established stance on “life and marriage issues” and expects to be active “if not organizationally, at least behind the scenes.”

In active organizing since Thompson’s departure, Romney may have taken the early lead in Tennessee. His son, Scott Romney, visits Nashville today for a fundraiser with Ted Welch, one of the best-known Republican fundraisers in the nation, and James A. “Jimmy” Haslam III, president and CEO of Pilot Corp. in Knoxville.

Welch said Romney has attracted the support of “business-oriented Republicans” who believe his executive skills best qualify him to serve as president.

The most-recent poll on the presidential race in Tennessee, conducted by the market research firm Crawford Johnson & Northcott Inc. for WSMV TV in Nashville, found that 26 percent of likely Republican voters are still undecided.

Of those stating a preference, Thompson had 25 percent, Huckabee 24 percent, McCain 12 percent and Romney 7 percent. The poll of 500 Republicans and 503 Democrats was taken Jan. 19-21. Thompson came in third in the South Carolina primary Jan. 19 and announced his withdrawal Jan. 22.

In the Democratic primary, the poll showed Clinton with 34 percent support in Tennessee, Obama with 20 percent, John Edwards with 16 percent and 28 percent undecided.

Supporters for both Clinton and Obama have been active in Tennessee. Obama’s campaign actually got a head start, opening headquarters in Nashville and Memphis well ahead of Clinton. Obama was first to run television ads in Tennessee as well.

Katherine Lyons, spokeswoman for Obama in Tennessee, said that about 14,000 people in Tennessee have signed up as supporters and about 1,000 are on a “Tennessee call team” making telephone contact with voters in support of their candidate.

But the Clinton campaign has since surpassed Obama in paying personal and television-advertising attention to Tennessee. Interestingly, both the candidate herself and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have made campaign appearances at forums associated with blacks.

In Nashville, for example, Hillary Clinton appeared at Tennessee State University, a historically black institution. State Sen. Thelma Harper of Nashville had a prominent host role at the “town hall meeting.”

Harper is the only member of the state Legislature’s Black Caucus who is backing Clinton, while several, including House Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry of Memphis, are backing Obama.

Blacks typically make up about 25 percent to 30 percent of the vote in a Tennessee Democratic primary. In South Carolina, Obama enjoyed a huge advantage among black voters.

Clinton has established Nashville and Memphis headquarters with tentative plans to start one soon in East Tennessee, according to Randy Button, a former state Democratic Party chairman working with the Clinton campaign. The campaign also says more than 2,000 volunteers are working on her behalf in the state.

The Clinton and Obama camps have both lined up prominent state Democrats to showcase, including former Gov. Ned McWherter as a Clinton backer and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville for Obama.

Many other well-known Democrats, including Gov. Phil Bredesen and Democratic congressmen other than Cooper, remain officially neutral.

Bob Tuke, an Obama backer and former state Democratic chairman, says Obama’s support appears stronger in more urban areas, especially Nashville and Memphis, while Clinton plays better in rural areas where “some voters may be more reticent about supporting an African-American.” He characterized the WSMV poll as “a joke” that underrates Obama support.