GOP and Democrats are weighing odds in GOP primary race

Robert Houk • Jan 30, 2012 at 11:26 AM

Some pundits now say Tennessee could play a role in deciding who will be the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama in November. If so, that would be a refreshing change.

Recent years have seen the Republican nomination all but locked up by the time voters in Tennessee and other “Super Tuesday” (March 6 this year) states get around to voting.

It appears as of this writing that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are locked in a close race for the GOP nomination. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Romney — the best funded of all the Republican contenders — was predicted to walk away with the nomination by the end of February. Aided by the “elite media,” which has picked off his opponents one-by-one with reports of their gaffes and personal peccadillos, Romney was expected to cruise to the GOP’s national convention with a sound backing of his party.

Not so, at least not yet. There seems to be a growing “anyone but Romney” movement in the Republican Party. Maybe it’s his tremendous wealth that makes some wary of his nomination, or his record as a moderate in Massachusetts (a New England moderate is seen as a wild-eyed liberal in the South) they don’t like. Perhaps it’s his religion that gives some reason for concern, or the fact he seems cold and distant. Whatever the reason, it’s clear Romney has a problem.

It’s also troubling for Romney supporters that Gingrich, whose campaign (much like that of Sen. John McCain in 2008) was incorrectly pronounced DOA early in the race, is getting all the headlines this month.

So who do Tennessee Republicans want to see as their party’s nominee? Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and other legislative leaders came out early for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. They liked his tough-talking (and 18th century-thinking) approach. Most other Republicans, however, saw him for what he really was: An unprepared and undisciplined version of George W. Bush.

State Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, has gone his own way in supporting Gingrich. He, like most of Nuclear Newt’s backers, think Gingrich is the candidate most capable of besting Obama in a debate. It would be fun to see.

Then there’s Gov. Bill Haslam, who is heading up Romney’s campaign here in Tennessee. It’s not surprising, one Republican curmudgeon told me last week, to see one tremendously wealthy man helping out another.

“They stick together,” he said.

This sentiment might seem a bit out of place for a Republican Presidential Primary, but this is not your typical GOP primary, nor is this a typical year. We are less than four years removed from the most devastating economic meltdown this country has seen since the Great Depression. Most Americans haven’t seen a pay raise in years, and they are in no mood to hear that a wealthy “unemployed” presidential candidate is paying a lower tax rate than they are.

I have no doubt former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum has his supporters here in Tennessee, mostly among voters who base their support on abortion alone.

And, of course, Congressman Ron Paul is also popular among pro-life, anti-war, anti-big government and the pro-legalize drugs crowd. (Drive around anywhere in South Johnson City for a few minutes and I bet you will see at least two vehicles with a “Ron Paul for President” bumper sticker.)

Odds are the race in Tennessee will come down to a battle between Romney and Gingrich, with Paul posting a respectable third-place finish. The question is: How will Romney fare with the state’s Republican voters who identify themselves as evangelicals?

In 2008, former Gov. Mike Huckabee won the Tennessee Primary even though he had already suspended his campaign by that time. McCain was a close second, followed by Romney.

Most pundits doubt Romney will do any better this year. Perhaps that is why Gingrich is expected to be putting some cash into his Tennessee campaign in the coming weeks.

Early voting for the presidential primaries in Tennessee begins on Feb. 15. Since Obama is unchallenged in the Democratic primary, all eyes will be focused on the GOP contest. That means some Obama supporters will be casting their votes in the Republican Primary. Why? They hope to help select a GOP nominee who would match up poorly against Obama in November.

But who? Which Republican would give Obama the fewest fits in the general election?

“That’s a good question,” one Sullivan County Democrat told me last week. “None of them are very strong.”

On paper, Romney looks like a good choice since his own party is having a hard enough time cozying up to him. Then there is Gingrich, whose negatives in national polls suggest he might make the best foil for Obama in November.

“His campaign is sure to implode,” one GOP sympathizer told me recently.

I’d make book on it.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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