Santorum beats Romney in Tennessee GOP primary

Voters cast their ballot at a Chattanooga, Tennessee Voters cast their ballot at a Chattanooga, Tennessee polling station. (March 6, 2012) Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Rick Santorum won Tennessee's Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, giving the former Pennsylvania senator a key victory in the South.

With 12 percent of precincts reporting, Santorum had 41 percent to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's 28 percent.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who won his home state of Georgia on Tuesday, was in third place with 20 percent in Tennessee, despite campaigning heavily in the state. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul had 8 percent.

Santorum appeared in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Memphis in the days before the primary, often in church settings.

Preliminary results from an exit poll conducted by Edison Research for The Associated Press show about seven in 10 Tennessee voters identified themselves as born-again Christians, and about three-quarters said it mattered at least somewhat that a candidate shared their religious beliefs.

Tennessee has 55 delegates up for grabs, the third most among the 10 Super Tuesday states. Candidates must gain 20 percent of the vote statewide or within the nine congressional districts to qualify for a share of the delegates.

Romney was unable to capitalize on superior organization in Tennessee and the endorsements of several top state Republicans, including Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and state House Speaker Beth Harwell.

The loss denied Romney the opportunity to show he could connect with voters in the South, where conservatives see him as too moderate and evangelicals might have questions about his Mormon faith.

Voter Mary Cecil, who is retired and lives in Sevierville, said the economy is a major issue, but that religion was the deciding factor that led her to support Santorum.

"I would like to have a true Christian in the White House," she said.

Kristy Tarrant, a 55-year-old executive assistant in Memphis, said Santorum's family values and how he dealt with the death of his newborn son led her to choose him in the primary.

"The protection of families in America is the issue that is important to me," Tarrant said. "I am impressed by the way he honored his child that he lost. I experienced a similar situation with a grandchild, and it resonated with me."

Tennessee also has an open primary, which means voters from any party can cast their vote in the GOP primary.

Wayne Renardson, 69, a retired jazz musician in Nashville, said he thinks Obama "is the best of the bunch," but cast a vote for Santorum "because he's easiest to beat."

"The Republicans are absolute clowns, all of 'em," he said before hopping on a motorcycle and riding away.

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