Romney, rivals court Southern support on vote eve

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 12 2012 6:40 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum talks to the media during a stop at McElroy's On the Bayou, Monday, March 12, 2012, in Ocean Springs, Miss.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

BILOXI, Miss. — Republican presidential contenders and their super PAC supporters campaigned aggressively on land, through the mail and over the airwaves Monday on the eve of primaries in Alabama and Mississippi with the potential to solidify or shake Mitt Romney's standing as front-runner.

In the Deep South, one of the most conservative regions of the country, Romney and his Republican rivals polished their credentials with attacks on President Barack Obama's handling of the economy and the nation's use of energy. "The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is," said Rick Santorum.

But those criticisms were mere warm-up for the candidates going after each other. Gingrich is struggling for survival in Tuesday's primaries, and Santorum is laboring to redeem his claim that Romney can't secure the support of conservatives, particularly evangelicals who are part of the party's key base.

"If the opportunity provides itself in an open convention, they're not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who has been outspending his opponent 10-1 and can't win the election outright," Santorum said in a television interview as he campaigned across Alabama and Mississippi.

Romney countered, also on television. "We're closing the deal, state by state, delegate by delegate," he said, emphasizing his lead in the category that matters most.

He has more delegates than his rivals combined, and is amassing them at a rate that puts him on track to clinch control of nomination before the convention opens next summer, a prospect that his rivals prefer not to dwell on. AP's tally shows him with 454 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, Santorum with 217, Gingrich with 107 and Ron Paul with 47.

The Republican contenders pointed toward the next primaries as a pair of national polls indicated Obama's support has fallen after recent gains. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 46 percent of those surveyed approve the way the president is handling his job, and 50 percent disapprove. A New York Times/CBS poll found 41 percent approval, and 47 percent disapproval.

Evangelical voters play an outsized role in both state primaries. Four years ago, 77 percent of GOP primary voters in Alabama and 69 percent in Mississippi said they were born again or evangelicals, a group that Romney has struggled to bring to his side in the primaries. His best showing in a contested primary was 38 percent in Florida.

Hoping to establish a connection with Southerners, the former Massachusetts governor campaigned in Mobile, Ala., with comedian Jeff Foxworthy, whose trademark jokes that begin "You might be a redneck if. ..."

Romney isn't — he was born in Michigan, educated at Harvard and elected governor of Massachusetts. And he drew laughter from his audience when he poked fun at himself by saying he hoped to go hunting with an Alabama friend who "can actually show me which end of the rifle to point."

"We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in," he says in an ad his campaign ran in both primary states, although not all the commercials were as self-deprecating as his rhetoric or as positive as his on-air message.

Restore Our Future, a super PAC that supports Romney, aired ads critical of Santorum for having voted in Congress to provide federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and attacking Gingrich for supporting action to combat climate change through cleaner sources of energy.

A radio ad the group aired across both states makes use of Santorum's own voice, including him saying in a debate last month that he was proud of the earmarks he has supported and that he had voted for federal education mandates even though they are against his principles.

"But you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team," he says.

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