Romney dons jeans, turns to evangelical south

Romney holds a comfortable lead over his rivals. But in the heart of the so-called Bible Belt, as a ring of conservative Southeastern states are known, Romney faces skeptics among some evangelical Christians in his bid to become the first Mormon president.

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    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to the crowd at the Port of Pascagoula while campaigning in Mississippi on March 8.
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Mitt Romney's path to the Republican presidential nomination is about to take a turn through the deep American South, which could complicate matters for the frontrunner in the race to challenge President Barack Obama.

Romney holds a comfortable lead over his rivals. But in the heart of the so-called Bible Belt, as a ring of conservative Southeastern states are known, Romney faces skeptics among some evangelical Christians in his bid to become the first Mormon president. In Mississippi and Alabama, which hold primaries Tuesday, there's concern that he's too slick and not a true conservative.

Yet if Romney prevails in the Republican race and faces Obama in November, the former governor of the liberal-leaning state of Massachusetts may be just good enough for some Southerners.

"If push comes to shove and he gets the nomination, I'll go in the voting booth like this and vote for him," says Mississippi retiree David Wilke, holding his nose.

Romney added to his lead by winning six of 10 contests this week on Super Tuesday, the biggest battle of the state-by-state primary race. That puts him on a delegate-winning pace that would secure the nomination in June, and at their current rate, none of his Republican foes will reach even half the number needed. To date,Romney has won 55 percent of the delegates at stake in primaries and caucuses.

But many Republicans remain wary. Romney once supported legalized abortion, which he now condemns, and signed a universal health care coverage program as governor that many conservatives consider government overreach. In Ohio on Tuesday, nearly half of evangelicals said Romney's positions on the issues were not conservative enough.

Romney has tried to appeal to religious conservatives by stressing his shared values with them on concerns such as traditional marriage, especially as former Sen. Rick Santorum's emphasis on social issues boosted his campaign.

Many Christians do not consider Mormons part of historical Christianity, although Mormons do. Republicans who say Mormons are not Christian are less likely to support Romney for the Republican nomination, according to a November 2011 survey by the Pew Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Conservatives who consider religion when choosing a candidate have had several options in the Republican field of candidates.

Santorum and former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich are Catholics who heavily emphasize religion and moral issues on the campaign trail, although Gingrich's personal history, including three marriages, has cost him some conservative support. The same Pew survey, however, found Republican voters would overwhelmingly back Romney in a general election against Obama.

Gingrich, who represented Georgia for 20 years and now lives in Virginia, must win every state from South Carolina to Texas to get to the Republican nominating convention this summer, spokesman R.C. Hammond says.

Staff for Santorum say their candidate will be aggressive in states where Gingrich expects to perform well.

Santorum and Gingrich are invoking God and country as they campaign in Mississippi and Alabama. They're winning applause by saying Obama has been a weak ally for Israel, a point that resonates with Christian conservatives.

Gingrich scored an early primary victory in South Carolina, but stalled before winning this week in Georgia.Romney won Virginia win this week — Gingrich and Santorum weren't on the ballot. Santorum won Tennessee.

Next up are Saturday contests in Kansas, the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Wyoming also wraps up its caucuses Saturday.

Then the Southern swing begins with Mississippi and Alabama next week, followed by Louisiana on March 24.

Romney is supported by top Republicans in many Southern states, including in Alabama, and he'll speak there on Friday. He's been endorsed by former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, though Riley concedes Romney is an underdog there.

"Mitt Romney is the only candidate with the leadership and business experience to take our country through this difficult economic situation and bring us out stronger," Riley said. "If there was ever time to have a job creator in the White House, it is now."

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