Kate Hicks

Just this weekend, Rick Santorum was barely leading Mitt Romney in Tennessee by two points. Romney seemed to have clawed his way back from a 20-point disparity, and the pundits were speculating that he might pull of his first Southern win -- a constituency the former Massachussets governor just can't capture.

But those hopes were soundly dashed, as he appeared to be on track to lose the Volunteer state by double digits with 35% of precincts reporting. Santorum came away with 39% of the vote, while Romney followed with 28%. Newt Gingrich was third with 23%, and Ron Paul trailed with 9%.

Romney did unusually poorly with demographics he's captured in the past, such as the highly-educated, illustrating the problems he still has among Southern and Midwestern voters. Santorum, meanwhile, did well enough to justify his argument that he's the conservative alternative in this race.

The exit poll breakdown reveals some unsettling trends for Romney, particularly among Evangelical Christians:

Nearly half of voters in Tennessee said Mr. Romney's positions were not conservative enough, and nearly 4 in 10 said they were about right. About half said Mr. Santorum's positions were about right, and a quarter said his positions were too conservative.

Mr. Romney did less well than usual with some of his of the groups that have provided him the most supporters in the past. While Mr. Santorum won less-educated voters, he essentially tied Mr. Romney among the better educated, which has not been the usual pattern.

Mr. Santorum did well among strong Tea Party supporters, but he he also did well among those less supportive of the Tea Party movement.

Like the voters in other states, 4 in 10 Tennessee voters said Mr. Romney was most likely to defeat Mr. Obama in November.

But that advantage for Mr. Romney was outweighed by the appeal that Mr. Santorum held among conservative and evangelical voters. Nearly three-quarters of Tennessee voters said it mattered that their candidate share their religious beliefs, and 4 in 10 said it mattered a great deal - a larger percentage than in previous contests.

Ouch. That's a hurdle Romney will have to overcome, and fast, if he expects to perform well in middle-America.

55 delegates are up for grabs in Tennessee tonight, and they'll be awarded proportionally. No candidates qualified to take all the 28 state-wide delegates, which would've required 66% of the vote, but since Santorum, Romney, and Gingrich all hit the 20% threshold, they'll each take a share of those. The remaining 27 delegates are awarded proportionally based on the performance in each of the 9 Congressional districts. At this point, Santorum has won all but two counties on the map, so expect him to clean up with the district-based delegates.

It's a good win for the former Pennsylvania Senator, and affords him more of an argument in favor of his candidacy. He needed to soundly defeat Romney in this Southern state in order to keep arguing that he's the conservative on the ballot, and that's just what he did tonight.


Kate Hicks

Kate Hicks is one of Townhall.com's web editors. You can follow her on Twitter @KateBHicks.