Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the Mississippi Farmers Market in Jackson, Miss., on Friday. The former Massachusetts governor has skeptics in the Deep South.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the Mississippi Farmers Market in Jackson, Miss., on Friday. The former Massachusetts governor has skeptics in the Deep South. Rogelio Solis/AP
Mitt Romney picked up some support in Saturday's contests, but there may be trouble lurking for him in the near future as the GOP race moves to the Deep South.
Despite his second-place finish in Kansas, Romney scored victories Saturday in caucuses in Guam, the Northern Marianas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He also won county conventions in Wyoming.
Tuesday's primaries are in Alabama and Mississippi, and the reddest of states are proving to be a tough sell for the former Massachusetts governor. He's trying his best to connect with the Republican base.
When In Mississippi...
On this swing through Dixie, Romney seems to have picked up a new twang, greeting crowds with "Morning, y'all!" He's also trying a new diet of biscuits and grits.
"Some of us have been saying 'y'all' all our lives, and you know it," says attorney David Allen of Biloxi, Miss. "But you take somebody from Massachusetts who says 'yawl,' you know he is not from here."
Allen still hasn't decided who he'll vote for on Tuesday, but Romney's not in the mix.
"To me, too much of what he does is scripted, and I'm just not real comfortable with that," he says.
The Romney campaign is doing what it can to overcome the perception that the candidate is out of touch by lining up bona fide Southerners to vouch for him. He has the endorsement of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, and Bob Riley, the popular former governor of Alabama.
At a tractor company in Birmingham on Friday, Randy Owen of the country music band Alabama opened a rally for Romney. Owen talked about his working-class roots and encouraged his native state to support Romney.
"I love this man, and I love his family, and I love what he stands for," he said.
Grady Thornton of Center Point, Ala., was in the crowd. The Romney delegate says the issue is not whether Romney can connect with working class voters.
"I'm not looking for somebody to play golf with. My wife is not gonna have tea and tennis with Ann. I'm looking for a leader," he says.
Thornton likes Romney's executive credentials. He acknowledges the obstacles Romney faces in the South, particularly with Christian conservatives troubled by Romney's Mormon faith.
"I'm also a Protestant, and when my Southern Baptist friends ask me about his faith, I remind them that the last two presidents we had that had some association with the Southern Baptist faith was Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter," Thornton says, "and I ask, 'Well, how did that work out for you?' "
Despite Thornton's argument, religious voters in the South generally line up with one of Romney's rivals: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Romney isn't connecting with the Republican base here, says Natalie Davis, a political scientist and pollster at Birmingham-Southern College.
"When you ask voters, 'Does he share your values? Is he one of us?' You don't get a resounding yes when they're talking about Mitt Romney," Davis says.
Voting Against Obama
Even if he doesn't win Alabama or Mississippi Tuesday, or Louisiana later in the month, Davis says that doesn't mean Romney will have trouble here in the fall, should he pick up the GOP nomination.
"The best thing Romney has going for him in November in the South is his opponent," she says. "There is so much animosity and visceral negative feelings about President Obama that Romney wins in a walk this November in the Deep South."
Retired real estate broker and Gingrich supporter Dodie White of Montrose, Ala., is one of those voters.
"Honestly, I don't care who runs against Obama, I'm gonna vote for them ... I don't care which of the three get there," she says. "I will vote for them to get him out of the White House."
Authentic "y'all" or not, even a candidate perceived as out of touch with average folks isn't likely to change a red state to blue.