Mitt Romney doesn’t have to master the South — he could lose both Alabama and Mississippi and still secure the nomination — but he’s made an effort to connect in Dixie anyway.
Entering the region as an underdog against Rick Santorum, Romney first deployed his Southern version during a Wednesday afternoon visit to Pascagoula, Miss., blending stump pitches on energy and the military with a shout-out to campaign aide Garrett Jackson, a 2009 Ole Miss grad, who he travels with “more than my wife.”
“He’s now turning me into an, I don’t know, an unofficial Southerner,” Romney said in front of several giant oil-drilling rig platforms sitting at the port. “I’m learning to say ‘y’all.’ I like grits. Things are, strange things, are happening to me.”
On cue, Romney kept the Southern shtick going Thursday morning at a town hall-style rally in Jackson, Miss. Standing next to Gov. Phil Bryant, a recent endorser who’s from one of the most conservative counties in the state, Romney opened with a local salute.
“The governor said I had to say it right: Mornin’ y’all. Good to be with you,” Romney bantered. “I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits. I’ll tell you! Delicious.”
The reviews of his Southern act have been mixed. (If he really wanted to bowl everybody over, he’d accompany every Southern handshake with a friendly, “How’s your mam’n’em?” Guess Garrett Jackson hasn’t taught Mitt that one yet.) One Mississippi rally-goer told Politico that Romney’s appropriation of Southern linguistic efficiencies like “y’all” could be perceived as “disingenuous.” Another said she was essentially indifferent to his pretense of a Southern personality — but wouldn’t be indifferent to his success story if he would only tell it in a way that conveyed that it’s possible for the middle class to attain what he has. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant declared, “I think people in Mississippi like Mitt Romney.”
According to Rasmussen, that’s true: Romney has an 8-point lead in the state. ARG puts Newt Gingrich up by four, but it still looks like a Romney win in Mississippi is possible, maybe even likely — and, again, Romney doesn’t have to win to stay in the race. Gingrich has made a win in either Mississippi or Alabama (and preferably both!) do-or-die. If he wins neither, he’ll probably be out. Santorum, too, needs a victory in one or both to knock out Gingrich and to bolster his narrative that he’s the leading counter to Romney.
Both Gingrich and Santorum are running out of money with which to mount a fight, though. Gingrich opted to forgo a Monday fundraiser to do a little last-minute campaigning in the South, recognizing that if he raises $1 million Monday but loses Mississippi and Alabama Tuesday, he’ll have no campaign left to finance. Santorum recently said he’s “burning through [his] savings.” Romney, too, has had to spend more than he planned — but he has better-positioned supporters to hit up for more cash. Donor fatigue might be the single biggest drawback to a long primary!
At this point, it would be encouraging to see Romney take a Southern state other than Virginia (namely, Mississippi); it would weaken the argument that he’ll be unable to count on the support of the South in the general election. Romney has acknowledged that the South is “a bit of an away game” for him. Now’s when he needs to prove that he’s got what it takes to lead the entire country, not just the Northeast or the ultra-wealthy or establishment Republicans. Clearly, that’s what the Romney camp is thinking, too. Hence his “Southern makeover.”
To parrot Santorum’s advisers, though, it’d also be nice if Alabamans voted to make this a two-man race so, at the very least, we’re able to learn if all non-Romney votes up to this point really have been anti-Romney votes or whether the majority of Republicans really are OK with Romney as the nominee.