Romney Wraps Up Deep South Tour

NPR's Ari Shapiro traveled with presidential hopeful Mitt Romney this week as the campaign swung through Mississippi and Alabama ahead of Republican primaries this coming Tuesday.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This weekend, Mitt Romney is doing something extraordinary; something he probably hasn't done in months. Nothing - nothing in public, at any rate. After weeks and weeks of nonstop campaigning, this is a rare weekend off.

Mr. Romney wrapped up a campaign swing through the Deep South with a rally in Birmingham last night, and NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Romney spent a day and a half trying to appeal to the locals in Mississippi and Alabama. He declared that he likes grits; he told people he has learned how to say, y'all; and by the time he arrived in Birmingham Friday afternoon, he decided to let someone vouch for him who knows from Alabama.

RANDY OWEN: I'm not trying to take the floor, governor. I'm fixin' to give you an introduction like you've never had.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: It's hard to get more authentically local than the lead singer of the band Alabama. Randy Owen's introduction and endorsement of Romney lasted about as long as a typical Romney stump speech. When he finally handed over the microphone, Romney wanted to hear just a little bit more.

MITT ROMNEY: I mean, I wish he'd have sung. I got to tell you, wouldn't you love to hear him sing "Sweet Home Alabama"? Wouldn't that be wonderful?

SHAPIRO: Now, that song is not actually by the band Alabama. But Randy Owen popped up out of his chair and took back the microphone anyway.

ROMNEY: Yeah, see?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: Watch out, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right.

OWEN: (Singing) Sweet home Alabama...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

OWEN: (Singing) ...where the skies are so blue.

SHAPIRO: Romney is not counting on Alabama or Mississippi being too sweet to him when they vote on Tuesday. Both states are full of the kind of religious, socially conservative, blue-collar voters that Romney has struggled to win over.

Retiree Martha Gutteridge isn't sure Romney is conservative enough. But he might get her vote anyway.

MARTHA GUTTERIDGE: Because I feel like he has the best chance of beating Obama, and we're here to win the war, not the battle. The war is with Obama.

SHAPIRO: One disconnect with this crowd is that Alabama is among the poorest states in the country, and Romney is one of the wealthiest men ever to run for president. At this tractor company, he emphasized his father's humble upbringing.

(SOUNDBITE OF STUMP SPEECH)

ROMNEY: He married my mom. He didn't have enough money to pay for a regular honeymoon, so he took some aluminum paint and put it in the trunk of the car - and sold that across the country as he was - needed to pay for gas and hotel rooms. And by the time he was finished with all that, he ended up becoming head of a car company. Can you imagine?

SHAPIRO: He said that promise of moving up is out of reach for too many Americans today. Dorothy Knight knows exactly what he means. She lost her job as a private school teacher two years ago.

DOROTHY KNIGHT: Well, we used up all of our savings, obviously. We've used up everything that we've ever put away for retirement. We've had to sell off our car. We bought a used car; it's like, 11 years old.

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, she says, the cost of everything is going up.

KNIGHT: Everything is expensive, especially gas. For example, my son-in-law delivers process for the courts. And obviously, it's $3.55 for a gallon of gas. He pays for his own gas; he only gets a set amount set by the courts. And at $3.55 a gallon, oh my gosh, it's killing him.

SHAPIRO: Pharmacist Matthew Millikowski was undecided when he showed up to this event. And after?

MATTHEW MILLIKOWSKI: It didn't do much, information-wise, for me. You know, he says he wants to balance the budget and then he takes a breath and then says, well, we're going to decrease taxes and increase spending by improving the military. All right. Good luck with that.

SHAPIRO: Millikowski moved here from Rhode Island six years ago. He says all this time later, locals are still calling him Damn Yankee.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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