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VOL. 123 | NO. 29 | Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tennessee Primaries Provide Hints but no Solid Direction for Fall

By DUNCAN MANSFIELD | Associated Press Writer

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KNOXVILLE (AP) - A week after the Super Tuesday primaries in Tennessee, political experts have combed through the numbers but are no more certain about how Volunteer State voters will swing in the presidential election in November.

Part of that is the nature of primaries; part of it may be the nature of this primary.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton easily won the Democratic primary and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee narrowly won the Republican primary. But that doesn't mean Tennesseans will vote for those candidates if they are the nominees this fall.

The state tends to lean Republican in presidential elections, though it twice voted Democratic for Clinton's husband when he was paired with Tennessean Al Gore. About a third of voters usually identify themselves as independents in general elections, but only one-fifth did in the Feb. 5 primaries.

"Primary voters are famously not representative of the general electorate," said Mark Byrnes, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University. "Generally speaking, a primary voter in either party is going to be more toward the extreme."

"This is a party election and not a general election. All sorts of Tennesseans were not involved in this," echoed Joe Corso, a political scientist at East Tennessee State University.

Republican primary voters, for instance, were heavily skewed to conservatives (73 percent) and white evangelical/born-again Christians (66 percent), according to exit polls for the television networks and The Associated Press.

Many backed Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, who carried Tennessee with 34 percent of the primary ballots. Republicans split their remaining votes among Arizona Sen. John McCain (32 percent) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (24 percent), now withdrawn, after expected favorite and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson dropped out.

Evidence of last-minute shuffling after Thompson's exit abounds. Some 46 percent of Republican voters said they didn't make up their minds until a week before the election. Less than a third of Democrats waited so late.

The Tennessee Right to Life anti-abortion movement and Christian fundamentalists, such as Family Action of Tennessee, took some credit for the Huckabee win in Tennessee.

But Tennessee GOP spokesman Bill Hobbs said it would be "oversimplifying and just wrong to say that the Christians voted for Huckabee and everybody else voted for the other guys."

Twenty-nine percent of born-again Christians voted for McCain, 19 percent voted for Romney.

Knoxville analyst and media consultant George Korda suggests Huckabee's support had less to do with religion than region. "Once Thompson is out, the South doesn't have a real standard bearer" besides Huckabee, he said. If voters are torn between candidates, "they are going to go to those people who either regionally or philosophically make them feel the most comfortable."

Hobbs acknowledged the outcome might have been different if Thompson, supported by much of the party hierarchy, was in the race. "If he had been perceived as a viable candidate nationally, he would have done very well and won Tennessee," he said.

The primary turnout was a record 1.2 million. Democrats had about 70,000 more voters than Republicans.

"That is going to be good news for us," Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Wade Munday said, predicting a carry-over into the November election. "It is the greatest testimony to George Bush as a recruiter for Democrats all across the state."

Hobbs rejected the idea, noting Tennessee twice voted for Bush and once for his father.

But at this point, Democrats may be more united. Clinton won 54-40 percent over Obama. But three-quarters of Democratic voters said they would be satisfied with Clinton as the nominee and 61 percent said they would be satisfied with Obama, regardless of how they voted in the primary.

Some divisions were seen in the Democratic ranks, both in Tennessee and nationally. Tennessee Democratic primary voters were mostly female and white, and Clinton did best with both demographics. Obama did best among younger voters and urban voters.

"The Clinton-Obama race in Tennessee truly does reflect the South and the conservative Democrat-independent general electorate of this nation," said Mike Fitzgerald, a political scientist at the University of Tennessee. "That is - race continues to matter, but it matters less. And the rise of the gender gap is upon us."

Still, Obama attracted a lot of white voters (26 percent voted for him, including 32 percent of white males). And Clinton attracted black voters (22 percent, including 25 percent of black women). Although Clinton tended to do better among older voters, she still claimed two of every five of the youngest voters.

In the GOP primary, Huckabee won 69 of Tennessee's 95 counties, including Chattanooga's Hamilton County and Memphis' Shelby County; McCain carried 18 counties, including Knoxville's Knox County, and Romney won eight, including Nashville's Davidson County.

In the Democratic primary, Clinton won 87 counties, including Knox. But Obama won three of the four other large metro counties - Davidson, Hamilton and Shelby.

So how will this play out this fall?

"We'll have to wait and see who the candidates are," said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. "And the tone of the campaign."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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