NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP/NewsChannel 5) - Polls have opened in Tennessee for voters to cast their ballots for Republican presidential candidates, along with nine other Super Tuesday states.
Voters began trickling in on Tuesday morning, but early voting numbers in Tennessee were down sharply from the last presidential primary in 2008.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has drawn the endorsement of several top Republicans in the state, including Governor Bill Haslam and U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander.
Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made a series of appearances between Kingsport and Memphis in the days before the vote.
Recent polls shows the major candidates were all within a few points of each other, which could make the primary unpredictable.
"If indeed those numbers are right, we could have another one of those close cliffhangers here on election night," said political analyst Pat Nolan.
Republican operative Josh Thomas, a Romney supporter, said Santorum's focus on religious and social issues may come as an advantage in Tennessee. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the state's Republican primary in 2008 on a similar platform, while Romney came in third.
"So that bodes well for Rick Santorum's brand of conservatism and economic populism," Thomas said.
But Thomas cited Romney's superior organization this year, as well as the endorsements of several prominent state Republicans.
"Tennessee's primary will be closer than most anticipate," he said.
Bob Davis, a former state Republican Party chairman, said endorsements will only take a candidate so far.
"Tennesseans are independent-minded thinkers, they don't necessarily like people to tell them how to vote," he said. "They've gone against the grain a few times, and I think Tuesday will be really interesting."
At a Santorum rally outside Knoxville last week, Anderson County teacher Parker Stanley said the former senator carries the least political and personal baggage among the candidates.
"They're trying to say he's a rightist Christian," he said. "And I don't think that will be as damaging as what they can say against Romney, or about Gingrich."
At a Haslam-led rally for Romney in Memphis last week, voters said they like Romney's past business experience, saying it will help lead the country out of sluggish economic times.
"A lot of Southern voters love all that Christian rhetoric," said Meg Crisp, 55, an accountant from Nashville. "We're not electing a radio talk show host. If we were, I think Gingrich would be a good person. We're also not electing a pastor, we're electing the president of the United States.
"I personally think the separation of church and state is a really good thing," she said. "I want a president, not a pastor."
After the rally, Haslam acknowledged Santorum's charisma and ability to connect with voters.
"Santorum does have a personality that fits," the governor said. "But the more time people spend around (Romney), the more they like him."
Tennessee has 55 delegates up for grabs, third most among the 10 Super Tuesday states. Polls opened at 7 a.m. and closed at 7 p.m. in most places.
More than 200,000 Tennesseans voted early this year.
NewsChannel 5 will have live Super Tuesday coverage on NewsChannel 5+ and online from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday.
(The Associated Press Contributed To This Report.)