Mitt Romney, neck and neck with Santorum, stumps in Knoxville

Mitt Romney, neck and neck with Santorum, stumps ahead of Super Tuesday

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Mitt Romney sat down for a one-on-one interview with 6 News Anchor/Reporter Gene Patterson. Mitt Romney sat down for a one-on-one interview with 6 News Anchor/Reporter Gene Patterson.

By GENE PATTERSON
6 News Anchor/Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Tennesseans finally get their chance on Tuesday to weigh in on the race for the Republican presidential nomination. After weeks of lagging behind in polls, Mitt Romney is now in a virtual tie here in Tennessee with Rick Santorum.

The Mitt Romney campaign didn't decide to come to Knoxville until this past Friday, booking West Hills Elementary School and basing its decision on polling numbers that show him surging in the state.  The latest Rasmussen survey shows he's just four percentage points behind Rick Santorum.

As an overflow crowd cheered, Mitt Romney, flanked by his wife Ann and Governor Bill Haslam, his Tennessee Campaign Chair, strode onto the stage at West Hills Elementary School looking very much like the front runner in the race for the GOP nomination.

"You need a leader who says 'Is this important enough to borrow the money from China?', and on that basis I'm getting rid of a lot of programs," said Romney to cheers.

For the past couple of weeks, Romney has been polling well behind Rick Santorum in Tennessee.  Santorum has tried to exploit that lead, visiting East Tennessee and its heavy Republican vote  twice in just 8 days.

That's why the latest Rasmussen poll which shows Santorum at 34% and Romney at 30% is so surprising. In an interview Sunday with 6 News, we asked the former Massachusetts Governor how he's been able to close the gap.

"I think it's because people know that to beat Barack Obama we have to have a candidate who understands that the central issue is the economy and jobs and getting people back to work with good jobs and rising incomes," said Romney. "That's what I know and that's why I'm seeing the kind of support that, the surge I've seen over the last few days.

Romney, who made a fortune at Bain Capital, a private equity firm, played up his business background and his time as Massachusetts governor and scoffed at questions about his conservative credentials.

"My record as Governor, I balanced the budget cut taxes 19 times, authorized enforcement of illegal immigration laws, got English immersion in the state, I'm pro-life and supported traditional marriage," said the candidate.

As for his opponents, especially Santorum, Romney laid out a litany of, in his mind, less than conservative actions from the former Senator.

"Senator Santorum washes over the fact that he voted against 'right to work' legislation and that he vote five times to raise the debt ceiling for, voted for Planned Parenthood and so he's not the rock of conservativism that he tries to portray himself as," said Romney.

But in the end, that may not matter to many of Santorum's supporters who align with Senator's religious and family values issues.

"We know it's an uphill battle in Tennessee to win a majority in the entire state," said Romney. "But if we can get state delegates, that's a big plus, and of course the more the merrier."

Romney said he's confident of a good showing on Tuesday and a good day in Tennessee and all the Super Tuesday states.

Tennessee has 55 delegates up for grabs in Tuesday's race.

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