By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
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 Texas 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.
“Mitt Romney is the only candidate with the leadership and business experience to take our country through this difficult economic situation and bring us out stronger,” Riley said. “If there was ever time to have a job creator in the White House, it is now.”
In Louisiana, which holds its primary in two weeks, state Republican Executive Director Jason Dore said support for GOP candidates seems to be fluctuating to match the national battle over the nomination. He said Romney supporters are particularly active in the New Orleans area, while Ron Paul is getting much of the attention on college campuses.
“Gingrich and Santorum seem to both ebb and flow all the time,” Dore said.
In Mississippi, Romney has been endorsed by most statewide elected officials, including Gov. Phil Bryant, who announced his support on Thursday shortly before a Romney rally in the coastal city of Pascagoula. Bryant had previously supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has dropped out. Both of Mississippi’s Republican National Committee members, Henry Barbour and Jeanne Luckey, are supporting Romney.
“Folks in Mississippi are just like Republicans in other places. They care about jobs and the economy and who can beat Obama. That’s why I’m supporting Romney,” said Barbour, a prominent state lobbyist whose uncle, former Gov. Haley Barbour, is withholding an endorsement until Republicans choose a nominee.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed his friend Perry. When Perry dropped out of the race, Jindal said he’d wait and endorse the eventual nominee.
Waiting to hear Gingrich speak Thursday in Jackson, Shane Brown, a 43-year-old nondenominational Christian minister, said he and his wife are not Romney fans but they’re resigned that he will probably win the nomination.
“He just does not seem like a real person,” Brown said. “We’re going to end up getting a candidate that the base doesn’t really love. You may go vote for him, but you’re not going to tell 10 people to go vote for him.”
He said that enthusiasm gap will hurt the Republicans. “I think that’s something the party establishment doesn’t quite understand.”
Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor, said Romney can claim success if he wins one-third of the primary vote in Mississippi and Alabama.
“Gingrich is there as a son of the South,” Jillson said. “And Santorum is there as a Yankee but as a Yankee social conservative.”
Wilke, 71, worked 31 years as an industrial equipment salesman and lives in a rural area outside Jackson. Wearing a shirt emblazoned with a large American flag and a baseball cap with “USA” in red, white and blue, he attended the Santorum rally Wednesday night in at the state agriculture museum.
He said he’s about 95 percent in support of Santorum and 100 percent in support of Gingrich. Wilke said he likes Santorum’s social conservatism, and he believes Gingrich would wipe the floor with Obama in a debate.
Romney? Don’t even get Wilke started. Too rich. Out of touch. Too slick, and too likely to say one thing to an audience up North and other things to audiences down South, Wilke said.
“I’ve got to tell you the truth: I don’t trust the man,” Wilke said. “He’s too wishy-washy.”
And Wilke said the Republican primary has been too negative: “I don’t want (Santorum) bashing the Mormon and I don’t want the Mormon bashing Newt.”
Bettye Fine Collins of Birmingham, Ala., a Republican National Committee member, said she’s supporting Santorum in the primary because “he has never flip-flopped on conservative values.” But she said she’ll back Romney if he wins the nomination. She said Santorum’s background, as the son of the coal miner, will appeal more to the common man and woman than Romney’s. She said Obama won in 2008 by targeting the common voter.
“We didn’t target the people who are out there struggling to make a living,” Collins said.
In Montgomery, Ala., Candy Sumrall, a 56-year-old transportation worker and declared “strong Newt supporter,” said she thinks many people will vote for Romney because the media have proclaimed him the front-runner. She believes Gingrich is the only person with a real chance to defeat Obama.
“All the things Romney flip-flopped on, you don’t change the way you think and what you believe because you think that’s what people want to hear,” Sumrall said. “Mitt Romney is Obama lite.”
Jillson said the South will remain solidly Republican in November.
“If Romney is the nominee, he will certainly win as much of the South as McCain did last time,” Jillson said. “The fight will be in the periphery. It will be Virginia and Florida. The rest of the South is pretty secure.”
Associated Press writers Phillip Rawls and Andy Brownfield in Montgomery, Ala., and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.