Can Mitt Romney, 'unofficial Southerner,' make it official in Ala., Miss.?

While playing down expectations in a skeptical Bible Belt, Mitt Romney has a shot to close down the Republican nomination with primary wins in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carries a baby after speaking to workers and supporters at a rally at Thompson Tractor in Birmingham, Alabama on Friday March 9, 2012.
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For Newt Gingrich, it may be do or die in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday. For Rick Santorum, a big win in those primaries could cement his status as contender. And for Mitt Romney, kudzu country presents perhaps his biggest chance yet to seal the elusive deal for the Republican presidential nomination.

In the deepest of the Deep South, the end of the GOP's long slog toward its August convention in Tampa, Fla., could finally come into focus. And Republican voters, who have watched the lead candidate position change 11 times, surely know that a nod to Romney would send a bold signal that the man who called himself an “unofficial Southerner” at a speech in Pascagoula, Miss., is official enough.

So far, Romney is downplaying expectations, calling wins in Alabama and Mississippi “a bit of an away game,” and for good reason. Polls suggested he had a real shot to win in Tennessee on Super Tuesday, but the 7 of 10 voters who considered themselves evangelicals withheld their support, comfortably giving the state instead to Mr. Santorum, the former Senator from Pennsylvania, whose rigid social conservatism plays well in the Bible Belt.

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But the central dynamic of the race for likely GOP voters – a willingness to vote for Romney in a head-to-head with Obama, but lagging excitement about him in the primaries – began to come to a head as polls showed a tightening three-way race in both Alabama and Mississippi, where all three candidates, sensing a sort of mini-Super Tuesday, marshaled their campaigns on Friday and Saturday.

The Monitor's Weekly News Quiz for March 3-9, 2012

To polite smiles, Romney referred to himself as an “unofficial Southerner” at a campaign stop in Pascagoula on Friday, noting that “strange things are happening to me” as he traverses a Southland where folks say “y'all” instead of “you guys.”

Some critics saw Romney's forays into Southern ways as another example of what some call Romney's “robotic” pandering. “After Romney spent two weeks explaining how much he just loved being back amongst Michigan’s trees and water and Vernor’s and coney dogs and Al Kaline and AMC Ramblers, it’s sad to watch him go full Copperhead,” writes Jeff Wattrick, a columnist with MLive.com, a Michigan-based media group.

Rival Santorum put it even more harshly at a campaign event in Kansas on Friday. “We already have one president who doesn’t tell the truth to the American people. We don’t need another,’’ Santorum said to cheers. “Gov. Romney reinvents himself for whatever the political occasion calls for.’’

But while Romney is often guilty of empathic overreaches on the stump, his milquetoast efforts this week to spark connections in a region where many consider his religion, Mormonism, to be a cult is perhaps the best he can do, and his focus on his strength as a turnaround artist when talking about the economy may be enough to, if not win, carve out a sizable slice of delegates.

Moreover, beside the evident regional and class differences that separate the former Wall Street mogul and governor of liberal Massachusetts from rural and suburban Southern voters, voters did get a few hints of what political science experts say they're looking for from Romney: His character.

While Romney has trailed by 20 points among evangelicals in the five states so far where they've been in the majority, Romney has continued to pick up high-level endorsements, including Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. Gov. Bryant, for one, saw a glimpse of the “real” Romney at a campaign event this week.

“I like to see a man when he's holding a baby,” Bryant said, “and he looks like he's held a baby before.”

Romney currently has 431 delegates ready to vote for his nomination, while Santorum has 181. Gingrich trails with 107 and Ron Paul has 46, according to Associated Press calculations. One of the candidates needs to clinch 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination.

Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor, told the Associated Press that Romney claiming a third of primary votes out of Mississippi and Alabama would constitute success.

"Gingrich is there as a son of the South," Mr. Jillson told the wire service. "And Santorum is there as a Yankee but as a Yankee social conservative."

Romney? According to at least some Southern voters willing to cast a vote in his name, he's more the odd cousin from up north, hard to pin down, but, in fleeting moments, endearing and capable in his own way.

The Monitor's Weekly News Quiz for March 3-9, 2012

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