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Romney facing a skeptical GOP South

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2012

JACKSON, Miss. — Mitt Romney faces a tough sell in the Deep South. With Mississippi and Alabama primaries coming up 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 Mormonism, but if Mr. Romney wins the Republican nomination and it's a November choice between him and President Obama, the former Massachusetts governor may be just good enough for 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.

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 Mr. Gingrich expects to perform well.

Mr. Gingrich scored an early primary victory in South Carolina and won this week in Georgia. Mr. Romney added a Virginia win this week — Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum weren't on the ballot — to his Jan. 31 win in Florida. Mr. Santorum won Tennessee.

After Mississippi and Alabama next week, Louisiana votes March 24, North Carolina and Texas on May 8, Arkansas on May 22 and Texas on May 29.

Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich are invoking God and country as they campaign in Mississippi and Alabama. They're winning applause by saying Mr. Obama has been a weak ally for Israel, a point that resonates with Christian conservatives.

Mr. Romney and Mr. 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 Mr. Santorum because she believes he's the most pro-Israel candidate and alluded to Genesis 12:3 and part of God's covenant with Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse."

"In God's word, he tells us about the blessings of those people who support Israel," Ms. Dockery said at a Santorum rally Wednesday night at the Mississippi Agriculture Museum in Jackson.

Mr. Santorum didn't mention Mr. Gingrich during his appearance at the rally before about 400 people, but he drew parallels between Mr. Romney and Mr. 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," Mr. Santorum told the audience, which included several families with young children and some people wearing tea-party shirts.

Still, Mr. 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 Mr. Riley concedes his man 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," Mr. Riley said. "If there was ever time to have a job creator in the White House, it is now."

In Mississippi, Mr. Romney has been endorsed by most statewide elected officials, including Sen. Thad Cochran and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Both of the state's Republican National Committee members, Henry Barbour and Jeanne Luckey, are supporting him.

"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 Mr. Barbour, a prominent state lobbyist whose uncle, former Gov. Haley Barbour, is withholding an endorsement until Republicans choose a nominee.

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