Romney facing a skeptical South
JACKSON, MISS. | Mitt Romney faces a tough sell in the Deep South. With Mississippi and Alabama primaries coming up Tuesday, there’s concern that he’s too slick, not really a conservative.
In a region where the evangelical vote is important, some are skeptical about his Mormonism, but if Mr. Romney wins the Republican nomination and it’s a November choice between him and President Obama, the former Massachusetts governor may be just good enough for 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.
Mr. Romney acknowledges that he faces a battle in Tuesday’s Southern primaries. In an interview Thursday with Birmingham, Ala., radio station WAPI, he said the Deep South contests would be “a bit of an away game” for him.
Campaigning in Pascagoula, Miss., Mr. Romney said he is turning into an “unofficial Southerner.”
“I’m learning to say y’all and I like grits. Strange things are happening to me,” he said jokingly.
Former House Speaker Newt 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 convention this summer, spokesman R.C. Hammond says.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s staff says he’ll be aggressive in states where Mr. Gingrich expects to perform well.
Mr. Gingrich scored an early primary victory in South Carolina and won this week in Georgia. Mr. Romney added a Virginia win this week — Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum weren’t on the ballot — to his Jan. 31 win in Florida. Mr. Santorum won Tennessee.
After Mississippi and Alabama next week, Louisiana votes March 24, North Carolina and Texas on May 8, Arkansas on May 22 and Texas on May 29.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich are invoking God and country as they campaign in Mississippi and Alabama. They’re winning applause by saying Mr. Obama has been a weak ally for Israel, a point that resonates with Christian conservatives.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama also expressed support for Israel this week in speeches to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington.
But Mary Dockery, director of a Christian youth group in central Mississippi, said she’s voting for Mr. Santorum because she believes he’s the most pro-israel candidate and alluded to Genesis 12:3 and part of God’s covenant with Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.”
“In God’s word, he tells us about the blessings of those people who support Israel,” Ms. Dockery said at a Santorum rally Wednesday night at the Mississippi Agriculture Museum in Jackson.
Still, Mr. Romney is supported by top Republicans in many Southern states, including in Alabama, and he’ll speak in Birmingham on Friday. He’s been endorsed by former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, though Mr. Riley concedes his man is an underdog in the state.
“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,” Mr. Riley said. “If there was ever time to have a job creator in the White House, it is now.”