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Voters in Alabama and Mississippi take part in Republican presidential primaries today. Mitt Romney has spent some time campaigning in those two states, at one point saying he's learning to say y'all. But he has not invested nearly as much time as his main rivals. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich consider these conservative states favorable ground for them. Santorum and Gingrich met at a forum last night in Birmingham, in a last-minute effort to woo undecided voters. NPR's Russell Lewis reports.
RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: The setting couldn't have been more picturesque - the stately Alabama Theater in downtown Birmingham. About 2,000 Republican faithful turned out for the presidential forum which began with a prayer.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's bow in prayer. Our father and our God, we thank you that over two centuries ago, you put it in the hearts...
LEWIS: Alabama is in the Bible Belt. And it's the kind of place that when strangers are introduced they ask what church you go to. So for Rick Santorum, speaking in this most reliably Republican state, it was easy to feel right at home.
RICK SANTORUM: When people read the Constitution and say, oh, we get our rights from the Constitution, that is wrong. The Constitution does not give us rights. It recognizes rights that are written on our heart because we are a creature of God. That's where we get our rights from.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
LEWIS: The forum last night was not a debate. Both Gingrich and Santorum were given 15 minutes to speak and then answered the same four questions from a panel. Both candidates repeated familiar campaign themes. Santorum: shrink the size and scale of federal government; allow more drilling for oil. Gingrich: lower gas prices by revamping U.S. energy policy, increase military spending, not decrease it. For the most part, the two candidates attacked President Obama and not each other. Here's Newt Gingrich.
NEWT GINGRICH: We are not just in the business of defeating Obama. We are in the business of replacing the bureaucracies, replacing the laws, correcting the judges and getting back to a country that's on the right track.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
LEWIS: The crowd clapped and cheered many times during Santorum and Gingrich's comments. After the speeches, people streamed out of the theater. Billy Lauderdale of McCalla, Alabama was all smiles. But he still wasn't sure exactly who he's going to vote for today.
BILLY LAUDERDALE: I keep trying to make up my mind, you know. I don't want this thing to drag out until September, because we need the time to fight Obama.
LEWIS: Lauderdale likes Newt Gingrich but may end up choosing Mitt Romney, even though Romney and fellow Republican Ron Paul skipped this event. Several people said, afterwards, that irritated them so much they won't vote for either. For Becca Robinson of Oneonta, Alabama, one candidate will get her vote: Rick Santorum - and there's one reason why.
BECCA ROBINSON: You know, he wants to bring God into everything. And to me, and my Christianity, that's what I needed to hear. You know, that's what we need.
LEWIS: How important do you think religion will play out in this race?
ROBINSON: I think it should be the most important value to bring back our country to the way it needs to be.
LEWIS: Judy Sellers came here with her young daughter. Sellers is a nurse and is frustrated by President Obama's signature healthcare law.
JUDY SELLERS: Everybody in America needs to pray. And just do what God has you to do, as far as voting in the election.
LEWIS: Mitt Romney is a Mormon, an unfamiliar faith here. But his religion didn't come up among the dozen attendees I spoke with. Instead, for people like Judy Sellers, it was Mr. Obama's faith.
SELLERS: I really don't think that a nation that falls on Muslim leadership, potentially, is going to be a nation that is going to survive.
LEWIS: Barack Obama is a Christian not a Muslim. It's an issue that came up four years ago when he ran for president. And it's not the only topic that made a return appearance last night. John Gentile of Crossville, Tennessee still doesn't believe Mr. Obama is allowed to be president because his father was born in Kenya.
JOHN GENTILE: I just don't like the directions that he's headed in, and personally, I don't think he qualifies to be president and a natural born citizen. And the Constitution states that you have to have two parents that were born in the United States. So there's no alternative allegiance by any member of the family.
LEWIS: The Constitution actually doesn't say that. But it gets to the complicated nature in the deep South of Republicans picking a presidential candidate they think can beat Barack Obama in the fall. That's the choice voters in Alabama and Mississippi face today when they go to the polls.
Russell Lewis, NPR News, Birmingham.
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