In Tennessee, Thompson Still Counts

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Scott Olson / Getty

Actor and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) delivers a speech.

Tennessee was Fred Thompson's turf until the Senator-turned actor abandoned his 2008 presidential hopes on January 22 with his name still on the ballot and early voting already underway. His departure has left the state's Republican primary race tightly split between John McCain, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, while Hillary Clinton, who has long enjoyed the loyalty of state Democrats, is expected to easily carry the Democratic primary on Super Tuesday, thanks in part to party faithful who remember her husband carrying the state in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections with favorite son Al Gore as his running mate.

Former Gov. Ned McWherter and much of the state's Democratic establishment have rallied to Clinton's side and she has striven to shore up her early lead, attending events in Memphis and Nashville on the weekend she lost South Carolina to Barack Obama. Clinton's appearances in Tennessee were tailored to African-American audiences; in Nashville she spoke at historically black Tennessee State University and in Memphis at an African American Church. Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton spoke at Fisk University, a historically black private institution.

In Tennessee, the black vote typically accounts for about 25% of the vote in a Democratic primary and the latest Rasmussen poll gives Clinton 49% of the Democratic vote to Obama's 35%. While Clinton and Obama both tried to claim an advantage in Tennessee from John Edwards' exit, Bob Tuke, a former state Democratic Party chairman who is backing Obama, concedes the advantage is probably Clinton's, since some voters are "reticent about backing a black."

In Tennessee, the division along racial lines is clear. With one exception the state's black Democratic legislators all support Obama; only state Sen. Thelma Harper supports Clinton, and Saturday's Rasmussen poll revealed Obama has the support of 71% of the state's black Democrats.

Meanwhile, the G.O.P. race is too close to call. Expected to endorse McCain, Fred Thompson has not yet done so, and the latest Rasmussen poll, released Saturday, reveals a tight race between McCain, with a 32% lead in the Republican primary; Mitt Romney, with 29% of Republican support; and Mike Huckabee, with 23%. That is a significant change from polls conducted immediately after Thompson's withdrawal, which gave Huckabee, who has the support of former state Republican Party chairman John Saltsman and of Tennessee Right to Life, up to a 37% lead.

As Tennessee's Republican voters appear evenly split between the three major presidential candidates, so too are the state's Republican leaders. Romney has the support of one former governor, Winfield Dunn, and McCain that of another, Don Sundquist. State legislators and other party leaders have similarly split their loyalties between the two. Thompson, widely expected to endorse McCain at a Nashville rally on Saturday, did not.

With his name still on the ballot, Thompson is likely to win delegates from Tennessee even after his withdrawal. In 1996, Lamar Alexander — former governor and now a U.S. Senator — withdrew as a candidate for President under similar circumstances and, despite his endorsement of Bob Dole, got 11% of the vote. Tennessee is not a winner-take-all state, and under party rules a candidate needs 20% of the vote statewide, or in a congressional district, to win delegates. Thompson may well reach that threshold, leaving delegates committed to him for two ballots at the convention — unless he releases them.