Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney named Gov. Bill Haslam his statewide campaign chairman Tuesday just as a new poll showed the former Massachusetts governor trailing Rick Santorum in Tennessee.
"I'm pleased to have so much support in Tennessee," Romney said in a news release. "Voters in the Volunteer State have been hit hard by the Obama economy."
In the same news release, the Romney campaign said it has rounded up "a full slate" of 48 delegate candidates on the Tennessee ballot, including Wayne Cropp, of Hixson, and Oscar Brock, of Lookout Mountain.
Haslam said the number of delegates "represents the strong support Mitt has from Memphis to Mountain City." But with early voting set to begin today, a new poll puts Romney 7 percentage points behind Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania with no organization in Tennessee.
The American Research Group Inc. poll telephoned 600 likely GOP voters Feb. 8-9 and found Santorum winning with 34 percent, followed by Romney at 27 percent, Newt Gingrich at 16 percent and Ron Paul at 13 percent, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.
The Tennessee secretary of state website shows Santorum with no committed delegates for Tennessee's March 6 primary. But if he wins, the Tennessee Republican Party will assign delegates in conjunction with his campaign, state GOP Chairman Chris Devaney said.
Devaney said party bylaws allow the state Republican Executive Committee to appoint delegates after Tennessee's primary, but he said already having a long list of delegates shows a candidate's organizational strength in a given state.
Santorum's national popularity has jumped after he won three states last week.
Haslam and his family, who own Pilot Flying J Travel Centers, supported Romney when the latter ran for president the first time, and Romney returned the favor when Haslam ran for governor in 2010.
"His first priority is being governor, but he'll encourage GOP voters statewide to strongly consider and vote for Gov. Romney," Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said in an email.
Unlike some winner-take-all states, Tennessee awards delegates proportionally. Any candidate who wins more than 20 percent of the vote statewide or in any of the state's nine congressional districts will get a share of the delegates, Devaney said.