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Gingrich fans hope Tenn. visit boosts prospects

By Erik Schelzig

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 27 2012 4:30 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a campaign rally at the State Capitol on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012 in Nashville, Tenn.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich hope a day of campaigning in Nashville will help boost the candidate's prospects in Tennessee.

State Rep. Tony Shipley, who is leading the former U.S. House speaker's state campaign, said Gingrich's appearances Monday should appeal to conservative voters in advance of the state's March 6 primary.

"Now whether we can gain the momentum through the press and this wonderful outpouring of support today before Super Tuesday?" said Shipley, R-Kingsport. "It truly is in God's hands, our country is in God's hands."

Gingrich faces a tough path in Tennessee, where former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum is popular with social conservatives and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has drawn the support of the Gov. Bill Haslam, state House Speaker Beth Harwell and much of the GOP establishment.

Shipley acknowledged that Haslam and Harwell's support of Romney has caused many Republicans "to take pause," but said the race remains open.

"I don't take offense what the governor or anyone else does," he said. "I think it's an opportunity for us all to speak on what we believe."

Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, said Gingrich presents an alternative to Romney.

"I can't speak for the governor or even the establishment," he said. "But the people who make up the rank and file of the party are conservative and they have questions about Gov. Romney's pedigree in that regard."

Gingrich began his day with coffee with state lawmakers and religious leaders at the legislative office complex, followed by speeches to Republican groups and a rally on the steps of the state Capitol. He also met privately with GOP members of both chambers of the General Assembly.

Former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., introduced Gingrich at the rally and was scheduled to attend an evening fundraiser.

Gingrich noted a historical tie-in just yards away from the rally.

"You have over here the burial place of President James K. Polk, who is the only speaker of the House to become president," he said. "So I have this sort of identity with this space."

State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, attended Gingrich's lunchtime speech to a monthly gathering of Nashville-area Republicans, but later Monday confirmed his endorsement of Romney. He said there things he likes about each of the candidates.

"I like the idea of Romney being a governor and CEO type, I like that Newt has great big ideas and I like Santorum's passion," she said. "If they could only morph into one."

Former state Republican Party Chairwoman Robin Smith said she won't endorse in the primary race, but noted that Gingrich was instrumental in helping raise money for the Tennessee GOP when the party was trying to win control of the state House.

She said it's too early to count anyone out of the race.

"This has been the craziest election cycle," she said. "I don't know that the polls are accurately reflecting the sentiments."

Smith said she's pleased that the primary election is being held a month later than in 2008.

"I think it's a blessing that we have a little bit later time to vote," she said. "It will help people become educated."

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