MOBILE, Ala. — Wealthy New Englander Mitt Romney is trying to woo Southern voters with a mix of regional references that sometimes show self-deprecating humor, and sometimes are just plain awkward.
The GOP presidential contender admits that campaigning in Alabama, Mississippi and other Southern states is "a bit of an away game" for him. Unlike Kansas, however, he's campaigning hard in those states, hoping essentially to tie or even steal a victory from more conservative rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
Romney seems torn between trying to be a full-bore (albeit temporary) Southerner and acknowledging his outsider status. In rainy Mobile on Monday, he talked of eating catfish and hunting as he campaigned alongside comedian Jeff Foxworthy, known for his "you might be a redneck" jokes.
As is often the case, Romney showed an engaging side and stiffness, at almost the same time. When the rain-soaked crowd sang "Happy Birthday," Romney exclaimed: "That's a fine Alabama good morning," as if such greetings are somehow different in other states.
Moments later, he showed good-natured self-awareness, saying he hoped to go hunting with an Alabama friend who "can actually show me which end of the rifle to point." The audience, crammed under an awning for protection from the storm, laughed with appreciation.
The former Massachusetts governor was mocked during his 2008 presidential bid for claiming he sometimes hunts "small varmints." GOP candidates rarely refer to firearms without extolling the need to protect gun-owners' rights.
Romney sometimes has struggled to connect with Southern Republicans. He recently said he doesn't follow auto racing but knows people who own NASCAR teams. He greeted voters in Jackson, Miss., last week with a hearty "Morning, y'all!" and said he started the day with "a biscuit and some cheesy grits."
While Southerners sometimes add cheese to grits, they generally go with just salt, pepper and butter.
In Birmingham, Ala., Romney was endorsed by Randy Owen of the popular country band Alabama. But Romney raised eyebrows when he asked Owen to sing a few lines of "Sweet Home, Alabama," the iconic hit for a rival band, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Owen gamely obliged.
Of course, every presidential hopeful must seek votes in unfamiliar regions. Lyndon Johnson (Texas) and Jimmy Carter (Georgia) had strong Southern accents, and John F. Kennedy's Boston accent was strange to many Americans.
Romney seems at his best when he acknowledges that Southern mannerisms do not come naturally to him. Campaigning in Pascagoula, Miss., he said he was turning into an "unofficial Southerner."
"I'm learning to say 'y'all' and I like grits. Strange things are happening to me," he said with a smile.
It's not clear that Southern Republicans feel more warmly toward Romney's chief rivals. Gingrich, a former House speaker, represented Georgia for 20 years in Congress, but the non-native never developed a Southern accent. He also has not lived in Georgia for decades. Santorum is from western Pennsylvania.
None of them is a Protestant, the religious affiliation that dominates the South. Santorum and Gingrich are Roman Catholics, and Romney is Mormon.
Santorum and Gingrich talk more openly about God than does Romney, who occasionally mentions the importance of "my faith." But that's true in all parts of the country.
Some Romney supporters feel his Mormonism might hurt him in the South. But there has been little overt discussion of the topic.
Voters who braved Monday's rain to see Romney in Mobile had simple, straightforward reasons for backing him.
"He's a man of integrity," said Billye Howard, 64. "I like what he says."
Patsy Clark, a retired banker, said Romney "is a fixer, and we definitely need fixing."
"He has good family values," Clark said.
Some Republicans say it's essential for Romney to show strength in the South, which has become the party's most reliable region. He might seem a somewhat weaker nominee if he fails to win a Deep South state, a cultural classification that no longer includes Florida, which Romney won.
But regardless of who is the Republican nominee, there's virtually no chance that President Barack Obama will win Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky or South Carolina. Georgia would be a mighty stretch.
Romney, who turned 65 on Monday, thanked Mobile supporters for a birthday gift. "I hope to unwrap it Tuesday," when both Alabama and Mississippi vote, he said.
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