'It's the economy, stupid.' Can Mitt Romney woo South with that pitch?

Mitt Romney has built his campaign around his background as a business leader who can best manage a fragile economy. But that's far from a slam-dunk pitch with voters in the South.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Jan. 19 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, greet supporters at his campaign headquarters in Charleston, S.C. Romney faces a tough sell in the Deep South. The challenge for the former governor of Massachusetts is that the next round of primaries and caucus votes is in Southern or socially conservative states: Alabama, Mississippi, and Kansas.
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Nobody's saying Mitt Romney is taking the express lane to the Republican nomination, but what he's trying to do now is at least maintain hard-won momentum after recent victories in states like Michigan and Ohio.

The challenge for the former governor of Massachusetts is that the next round of primaries and caucus votes is in Southern or socially conservative states: Alabama, Mississippi, and Kansas.

Mr. Romney has built his campaign around the notion that his background as a successful business leader will burnish his appeal as the candidate who can best manage a fragile economy. Southern voters may care about Bible-based issues, but they're also engaged on the economic ones.

Recommended: 'The Real Romney': 10 facts about the presidential hopeful

At least that’s the theory.

One thing in Romney's favor is this: Although voters in the South may not be flocking enthusiastically his way, they don't appear solidly in the camp of any one rival for the presidential nomination. Former US Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are duking it out with each other, and not just with Romney, for votes.

"Romney is depending on a split among conservatives,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, in an email interview. “Both Santorum and Gingrich are fighting hard for that Southern turf – ideal circumstances for Romney to come up through the middle."

All the candidates, including libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, are campaigning for the nomination on a platform of fiscal conservatism – with economic plans to cut taxes and slash federal spending by varying degrees.

Throughout the campaign season, Romney has been pinning his hopes in good measure on the idea that he's a proven leader in the private sector, someone who understands business, not just a Washington politician. That could score some points against his rivals, but it's far from a slam-dunk pitch with voters in the South.

Romney is blasting Mr. Santorum for his use of the budget tactic known as earmarks. And in the South, with its very different labor climate than Santorum's Pennsylvania, he can use Santorum's past opposition to a national right-to-work law against him.

But Santorum, who won Tennessee and Oklahoma on Tuesday, has his own pitch that has resonated with voters concerned about the economy. He says he's standing up for families (with an expanded tax benefit for households with children), will bring back blue-collar jobs (with tax breaks for manufacturers), and has a stronger message on health care than Romney.

"Why would we nominate someone who was for the federal mandate?" Santorum asked voters in Kansas recently, characterizing Romney's past positions on health-care reform. "The government takeover of the health-care system [is] robbing you of your liberty.... Why would we give that issue away [to Obama]?"

Unemployment stands at 8 percent in Alabama, slightly below the national average, and at 10.4 percent in Mississippi. The two states hold primary votes on Tuesday March 13. Kansas, with unemployment at 6.4 percent, holds its caucus on Saturday.

Conservative political strategist Karl Rove, writing in the Wall Street Journal, says that Romney has made progress broadening his appeal to Republican voters.

On Super Tuesday Romney "nearly erased the gap [versus rivals] among non-college graduates that's plagued him throughout the primaries," Mr. Rove said.

"Romney is hoping for an upset in one or the other of the Southern states. If it happens it will be because of that old standby, Romney's vastly superior financial resources," Mr. Sabato says, adding that Romney is buying "a lot more TV time than either Santorum or Gingrich can afford."

Stay tuned to see if Romney can carve out a victory.

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