Rick Santorum won the Tennessee primary, the Associated Press projected, capturing an expected victory in a conservative Southern state where polls showed he enjoyed a comfortable lead over likely second-place finisher Mitt Romney.
The winner was projected based on exit polls, with precinct results just starting to come in after polls closed at 8 p.m. EST.
Santorum was popular with social conservatives in the state, while Romney had the endorsement of Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and much of the state’s GOP establishment. Gingrich, from neighboring Georgia, made a campaign stop in Nashville the week before the primary, but was not much of a factor.
Polls showed Romney had cut into Santorum’s lead in recent weeks, but it was not a state the moderate governor from Massachusetts expected to win.
Under state Republican rules, 28 of Tennessee’s 58 delegates will be awarded on a proportional basis since both candidates collected more than 20% of the vote but neither won more than 66%.
In addition, the winner of each congressional district collects two delegates and the runner-up gets one, unless a candidate wins more than 66% of the vote in a district to claim all three delegates.
The candidate who ultimately emerges as the Republican nominee can count Tennessee as safe in the November general election. Tennessee last supported a Democratic nominee in 1996 when Bill Clinton won his second term. But even in 2000, when Democrat Al Gore, a sitting vice president and native son, was on the ballot, the Volunteer State voted Republican.
Then-candidate Barack Obama won 42% of the Tennessee vote in the 2008 election.