Health reform cast as economic issue in Tennessee primary

Political analysts and pollsters say Rick Santorum’s staunch conservatism will play well among Republican voters in Tuesday’s Tennessee primary. The New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight website forecasts a 70 percent chance of a Santorum victory over Mitt Romney based on an average of recent surveys and assessment of each candidate’s momentum.

Santorum is expected to receive about 37 percent of the vote in Tennessee, followed by 33 percent for Romney, 20 percent for Newt Gingrich and 9 percent for Ron Paul, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Foremost, Tennesseans want to hear solutions for reviving the state’s sluggish economy, but the leading candidates have been quick to link that discussion to healthcare reform.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that, during Feb. 29 campaign stops in Knoxville and Nashville, Santorum characterized President Obama’s healthcare mandate as part of “a wave of administration regulations that have hurt the economy.” He vowed to repeal the legislation upon inauguration.

Romney, too, promises to do away with Obamacare, noting that it has added a trillion dollars in new healthcare spending and contributed to higher individual and corporate taxes. According to his official website, if elected president, Romney would issue an executive order on his first day in office paving the way for the federal government to release health reform waivers to all 50 states. He would then “work with Congress to repeal the full legislation as quickly as possible.” Each state would be empowered to devise a health reform plan for its own citizens.

Craig Becker, president of the Tennessee Hospital Association, says a Republican administration would have a chance of making repeal a reality: “If the White House goes Republican, there would certainly be momentum for pulling the funding if the House and Senate did not repeal the entire law.”

His association supports health reform. “We already give out over two billion dollars worth of uncompensated care in this state, and that’s our Achilles’ heel. It’s going to kill hospitals eventually if we can’t get people insurance coverage,” Becker says.

But that’s not the view of the general populace. “Tennessee is very conservative,” comments Becker. “They do not like being told that they have to have [insurance] coverage or they’ll have to pay a fee.”

Both Santorum and Romney will pitch hard to that constituency right up until Tuesday’s primary. The Nashville Tennessean quotes Jim Jirjis, a physician at Vanderbilt University’s medical center, as saying “Everyone’s trying to prove themselves the better conservative right now.”  Even so, he warns, “The person who most appeals to the base is not necessarily the person most likely to get elected.”

Romney planned some last-minute campaigning in Knoxville on March 4, according to television station WVLT. Despite Romney’s deficit in the polls, the gap between he and Santorum appeared to narrow over the weekend leading up to Tuesday’s election.

Romney has the support of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, as well as Sen. Lamar Alexander, state House Speaker Beth Harwell, three of the state’s seven Republican congressmen and former governor Winfield Dunn, according to the Commercial Appeal.

“It’s still a very volatile electorate and I think a lot of people haven’t made their mind up,” Haslam told the news source. “I’m not guaranteeing victory by any means, but I think this race will end up being very competitive.”

At stake are Tennessee’s 58 delegates, third most among the 10 states holding Super Tuesday primaries. Georgia -- where Gingrich is expected to prevail -- awards 76 delegates, while Ohio -- where Santorum holds a slim lead in polls over Romney -- awards 66.

In total, the Super Tuesday states will award 437 delegates – almost 40 percent of the 1,144 needed to win the Republican nomination, according to Yahoo News.

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