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Republican candidates court Southern support before primaries

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mitt Romney may not know the butt side of a rifle or dine on cheesy grits, but he's hopeful Republican primary voters won't hold it against him when they vote Tuesday in two southern states where Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich need to excel to stay competitive.

Romney, whose highfalutin, northeastern sensibilities may put off some good ol' boys, expressed confidence -- backed by late polling -- that evangelical and socially conservative voters in the South think he's the one to win the White House back from President Obama -- even as he acknowledged he doesn't need to win the states to stay in the nomination hunt.

"John McCain didn't win either of these states, Alabama or Mississippi," he told Fox News. "We are delighted that we are doing so well there. The polls are suggesting it is kind of a three-way tie. It is an away game for me."

Romney added that many in the two southern states are joining his effort because "the other guys are nice folks, but they have not organized a campaign with a staff, the organization, the fund-raising capacity to actually beat Barack Obama. I have."

The contenders fanned out on Monday across Mississippi and Alabama, which have 37 and 47 delegates up for grabs, respectively. Hawaii and American Samoa are also holding GOP caucuses on Tuesday. 

Gingrich, who acknowledges that he needs to win one of the southern states, was spending the day in Alabama Tuesday though Romney and Santorum were moving on to states holding future contests.

Santorum is laboring to redeem his claim that Romney can't secure the support of conservatives, particularly evangelicals who are part of the party's key base.

"If the opportunity provides itself in an open convention, they're not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who has been outspending his opponent 10-1 and can't win the election outright," Santorum said in a television interview as he campaigned across Alabama and Mississippi.

Romney countered, also on television. "We're closing the deal, state by state, delegate by delegate," he said, emphasizing his lead in the category that matters most.

He has more delegates than his rivals combined, and is amassing them at a rate that puts him on track to clinch control of nomination before the convention opens next summer, a prospect that his rivals prefer not to dwell on. AP's tally shows him with 454 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, Santorum with 217, Gingrich with 107 and Ron Paul with 47.

The Republican contenders pointed toward the next primaries as a pair of national polls indicated Obama's support has fallen after recent gains. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 percent of those surveyed approve the way the president is handling his job, and 50 percent disapprove. A New York Times/CBS poll found 41 percent approval, and 47 percent disapproval.

Evangelical voters play an outsized role in both state primaries. Four years ago, 77 percent of GOP primary voters in Alabama and 69 percent in Mississippi said they were born again or evangelicals, a group that Romney has struggled to bring to his side in the primaries. His best showing in a contested primary was 38 percent in Florida.

Hoping to establish a connection with Southerners, the former Massachusetts governor campaigned in Mobile, Ala., with comedian Jeff Foxworthy, whose trademark jokes that begin "You might be a redneck if. ..."

Romney isn't -- he was born in Michigan, educated at Harvard and elected governor of Massachusetts. And he drew laughter from his audience when he poked fun at himself by saying he hoped to go hunting with an Alabama friend who "can actually show me which end of the rifle to point."

"We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in," he says in an ad his campaign ran in both primary states, although not all the commercials were as self-deprecating as his rhetoric or as positive as his on-air message.

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