RAY SUAREZ: Much of the talk was about energy and gas prices in the presidential campaign today.
NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman reports on the day’s events in the run-up to Super Tuesday.
KWAME HOLMAN: Mitt Romney started his campaign day in energy-rich North Dakota, hammering President Obama over the surging price of gasoline.
MITT ROMNEY (R): He should be hanging his head and taking a little bit of the blame for what’s going on today.
KWAME HOLMAN: Gas prices have pushed their way onto the campaign agenda, rising 45 cents a gallon since the 1st of the year.
But in a blog post today, the White House again highlighted figures showing U.S. reliance on oil imports falling in each of the three years of the Obama presidency.
Back in Fargo, Romney argued it would be down even more if not for the president’s policies, including his veto of a plan to speed up the Keystone oil pipeline project.
MITT ROMNEY: When someone says do you want to bring in a pipeline that’s going to create tens of thousands of jobs to bring oil in from Canada, how in the world could you say no? But he did. This is a president who doesn’t understand energy. He is the problem. He is not the solution.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president counterpunched in Nashua, N.H., rejecting Republican plans he says focus mainly on more drilling.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If there’s one thing I know about New Hampshire, it’s that your political bull detector is pretty keen. It’s pretty sharp.
BARACK OBAMA: You know that we can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices.
As long as I’m president, I will not walk away from the promise of clean energy, because our future depends on it.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BARACK OBAMA: I’m not going to cede the wind or the solar or the battery industry to China or Germany because some politicians in Washington refuse to make the same commitment here in the United States of America.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
KWAME HOLMAN: One of Romney’s rivals, Newt Gingrich, joined the debate in Woodstock, Ga. He said the president is taking his eye off Americans’ pain at the pump.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): I’m for science. I’m for developing the future. But I think one of the lessons of the Obama waste of over $500,000 on Solyndra is that you shouldn’t confuse the future with the present.
In the present, the American people drive cars and trucks. The fact is, is that is a major expense and that, if gasoline hits $5 a gallon this summer, that it will dramatically impact the economy, because people won’t have any extra money.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, GOP contender Rick Santorum went after Romney for first opposing limits on insurance coverage for birth control, then reversing himself.
In Atlanta, Santorum said it showed Romney’s not a conservative “at the core.”
RICK SANTORUM (R): What’s a winning formula is having better ideas, motivate the base of the Republican Party, being authentic, having the character to go out there and talk about core convictions in America, and attracting people who are looking for trustworthiness and authenticity, someone that, of course, they may not agree with on everything — Who does? — but someone at least they know that what you say you believe, you actually do believe.
KWAME HOLMAN: The fourth Republican hopeful, Ron Paul, held no public events today.
RAY SUAREZ: Late today, the Michigan Republican Party voted to award Romney both of the state’s at-large delegates from his victory there Tuesday. That’s a backtrack on the party’s previously announced rules to split delegates proportionally.
That means, instead of 15 delegates each between Santorum and Romney, Romney will net 16 and Santorum will get 14. The Santorum campaign complained of backroom dealing.
The next contests will come on Super Tuesday, which will be the candidates’ first real test in the South. Georgia and Tennessee will be among the biggest prizes of the 10 primaries and caucuses awarding more than 400 delegates next week.
For more on what is driving the contests in those states, we are joined by Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia. And, in Tennessee, John Geer is a professor of political science and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll at Vanderbilt University.
Professor Bullock, Super Tuesday has in past cycles been a very Southern primary, but a look at the map shows you that it’s sort of all over the place this time around. But it’s important for the four men who are still vying to become the Republican candidate to show their strength in the South.
CHARLES BULLOCK, University of Georgia: Yeah.
Well, the South has now become the heartland for the Republican Party, and this is what — the base they build out from. So it’s taken the same kind of role now for the GOP that it did for decades for the Democratic Party.
Moreover, Gingrich has been saying — this long run of losses he has had ever since South Carolina, that he needs to get back to the South and that the South will redeem him. Well, it looks like maybe now, it’s going to narrow a definition of where he can well do in the South, and maybe only Georgia.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Geer, can you give us a quick tour of Tennessee so we know what we’re looking at politically?
JOHN GEER, Vanderbilt University: Well, Tennessee is a state that’s more moderate, for example, than Alabama and Mississippi.
It’s a state that has a lot of moderate leadership, but it’s still — at the GOP level, that is — but it’s still very much a red state. It should be a state that someone like Newt Gingrich does well in. But, as Chuck Bullock just said, he’s not doing very well here in the state, and right now Santorum at least has a lead for the moment, and we will see how it goes forward. But it’s tough going for the former speaker.
RAY SUAREZ: From tip to tip, Tennessee is a pretty long, skinny state. Does it break down regionally in political terms?
JOHN GEER: Oh, absolutely.
In some ways, Tennessee is really three states. The eastern part of the state has been Republican actually — Republican even before the Civil War, and then you move more towards the middle, where Nashville is, it becomes more moderate, a little bit more Democratic. And then you move to the west, and it’s very Democratic, partly because of Memphis and its population.
So it’s a very diverse state politically and has really three core regions.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Bullock, you teach Southern politics. Tell us more about Georgia, one of the biggest prizes in Tuesday’s balloting.
CHARLES BULLOCK: Well, Georgia’s — most of Georgia’s voters now live in the Atlanta metro area, which is, I believe, still the largest metro area in the nation. It’s about 28 counties.
And you have some very, very conservative voters in that area. What you’re going to see probably in the electorate that turns out next Tuesday will be an electorate that is going to be roughly two-thirds identifiers as evangelicals or born-again.
There are a number of Tea Party groups which are fairly active in the state. And they’re — you’re going to find some support — indeed, it looks like probably Santorum is getting — is gaining ground in Georgia. If we go back to four years ago, Romney essentially fought to a three-way tie in Georgia. He got 30 percent of the vote here.
He will be doing well if he can repeat that this year. He’s been polling more in the — a little below 25 percent. So it will — the interesting thing in Georgia may be who can come in second. Will it be Santorum or will it be Romney?
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Geer, is there regional particularism at play this time around, or are the issues that are animating voters in Tennessee the same ones animating voters everywhere, like the economy?
JOHN GEER: Oh, I think economy clearly dominates here.
Tennessee is doing okay, a little bit better than average, but, no, definitely the economy. Social issues matter because a lot of voters, as Professor Bullock just said, are, in fact, evangelical voters, especially in the Republican primary. And that’s going to matter. But, in the end of the day, it’s the economy, and it’s going to be Santorum’s responsibility and Romney to try to connect to voters here to see if they can get some additional support.
RAY SUAREZ: And how is Tennessee faring economically?
JOHN GEER: Well, it’s doing a little bit better — it’s — than the average. Our unemployment rate is around 8 percent. And there are — some job growth.
The housing market didn’t take quite as big a hit as it did in other parts of the country. So Tennessee is doing okay. Our, for instance, revenues in the state budget are up. And so it looks like there’s a little extra money to spend, which isn’t true for a lot of different states.
RAY SUAREZ: And Georgia, how has it fared in this latest economic downturn?
CHARLES BULLOCK: Georgia has been hammered.
Our unemployment rate has run above the national average for months and months and months. We’re still above 9 percent. And construction was really important in Georgia, both residential, but also commercial expansion. Residential property is now in foreclosure. The housing prices in Atlanta, we saw a report this week, have dropped back to the level they were 14 years ago.
And that assumes you can sell your house, which many people can’t. So Georgia is still in the doldrums when it comes to the economy.
RAY SUAREZ: Georgia has also been one of the big magnets in the South for Latino immigrants, which doesn’t change the voting population in the Republican primary very much, but does it affect the issues that people are worried about?
CHARLES BULLOCK: Well, the Republican Party is still playing exclusively to a white base.
And so the Republicans in the state legislature continue to push anti-immigration legislation. It was a very tough anti-immigration bill passed last year. This year, the legislature is looking at tightening up the access to higher education for children who are not American citizens.
So, although the future is going to be quite important in terms of which party can appeal to this growing Latino population, so far, the Republicans don’t seem to have gotten that message and are forfeiting that to the Democrats.
RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor Geer, has Tennessee been an immigrant magnet in the same way as Georgia?
JOHN GEER: No, I don’t think to the same extent. About 5 percent of Tennessee are Latinos, for example.
In fact, in general, I mean the African-American population is significantly less here than it is, for example, in Georgia. There’s been some tough anti-immigration kind of legislation that’s taken place, and partly because it can do so because of the smaller population here. And it’s growing, but it’s still not a sizable chunk yet.
RAY SUAREZ: And if we’re watching Tennessee on Tuesday night, what should we be looking for, quickly, from the results?
JOHN GEER: Well, what you should be looking for is, does Santorum get out to a big lead right away? And if, in fact, it looks like it’s close, maybe some of the recent support that Romney got in Michigan and Arizona is turning the tide, just like we see in the national polls.
I suspect it’s tightening up here just because the national trend is towards Romney. I doubt Tennessee is going to be dramatically opposite of that trend. And so, therefore, I suspect a pretty close race.
RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor Bullock, quickly, what stat will you be looking at from Tuesday’s results for Georgia?
CHARLES BULLOCK: Yeah, I think the real issue is how much of the vote can Gingrich get? He’s not going to get a majority. Will he get close to 40 percent or he’s actually going to be below that?
And so I think he will be the leading candidate, but he may see Santorum creeping up on him. And if Gingrich can’t do well in Georgia, then I don’t think there’s any encore for him. I think maybe this will be the last of his nine lives.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Bullock, Professor Geer, gentlemen, thank you both.