Eric Gay, Associated Press
JACKSON, Miss. — Mitt Romney faces a tough sell in the Deep South. With Mississippi and Alabama primaries coming up next 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 Mormon faith.
But if Romney wins the Republican nomination and it's a November choice between him and Democratic President Barack Obama, the former Massachusetts governor may be just good enough for some 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.
Romney acknowledges that he faces an uphill 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., 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, needs to 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 Gingrich expects to perform well.
Gingrich scored an early primary victory in South Carolina and won this week in Georgia. Romney added a Virginia win this week — Gingrich and Santorum weren't on the ballot — to his Jan. 31 win in Florida, which is culturally not entirely a Southern state, despite its geography. Santorum won Tennessee.
After Mississippi and Alabama next week, Louisiana votes March 24, North Carolina and West Virginia May 8, Arkansas May 22 and Texas May 29.
Santorum and Gingrich are invoking God and country as they campaign in Mississippi and Alabama, They're winning applause by saying Obama has been a weak ally for Israel, a point that resonates with Christian conservatives.
Romney and 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 Santorum because she believes he's the most pro-Israel candidate.
"In God's word, he tells us about the blessings of those people who support Israel," Dockery said at a Santorum rally Wednesday night at the Mississippi Agriculture Museum in Jackson.
Santorum didn't mention Gingrich during his appearance at the rally before about 400 people, but he drew parallels between Romney and Obama on the government's role in health care. A boy at the rally hollered, "Obamneycare," momentarily drawing attention.
"If we win in Mississippi, this will be a two-person race," Santorum told the audience, which included several families with young children and some people wearing tea party shirts.
Roughly 200 people turned out Thursday morning to hear Gingrich at a Jackson hotel. He spoke at length about oil production but got the most applause when he said Obama has an arrogant belief in big government.
"Obamaism is a repudiation of the Declaration of Independence," Gingrich declared.
Still, 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 Riley concedes Romney is an underdog in the state.
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