Romney: "I think I can do pretty darn well in Dixie"

As likely voters preemptively weigh a presidential bid by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, they rightly want to know how the current ostensible GOP frontrunner would perform on Perry’s turf. At a townhall in New Hampshire this week, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney signaled his confidence that he could take several key states in the South — including Perry’s home state of Texas:

“I think I can do pretty darn well in Dixie,” Romney said. “Last time around [in his 2008 campaign], I made a real stand in Florida. Now most people don’t consider that Dixie, but it sure is the South. And I sure hope to win the primaries in Florida, get some delegates out of Florida, and I’d sure like to win South Carolina. And West Virginia.”

Then Romney turned to Texas.

“There was a poll, I guess about a month ago, that was a little surprising,” Romney said. “It had me as the only Republican candidate who in Texas could beat President Obama.”

“So I’d like to get Texas,” Romney added, “and, you know, Mississippi, Alabama — I want all the states.”

As the Washington Post article points out, it was unclear exactly which poll Romney was referencing. Public Policy Polling found in June that Texas could be close if Romney is not the Republican nominee — but he wasn’t the only GOP candidate who polled ahead of Obama.

It’s clear from Romney’s comments that the polished Massachusetts politician is no Southerner. “Dixie” is just one of those terms best said by someone from the South. And which states constitute the South proper is a debate most Southerners can’t decide and definitely not a debate Romney wants to enter. A few of my friends from Alabama insist Arkansas is not actually a part of the South. And Texas is Texas, both a part of the South and a standalone state — everybody knows that.

Talking about how well he can do “in Dixie” does the opposite of what Romney intended it to do. It doesn’t instill confidence: It just recalls to voters’ minds the hurdles Romney faces in the Bible Belt and Deep South. And it reminds voters that, in Rick Perry, the South would likely find its candidate. In a recent Gallup poll, for instance, Perry polled 10 points ahead of Romney among southern Republicans.

But Southerners shouldn’t rule out Romney and Romney is certainly right to not give up the South without a fight. Not only did he do well in Florida the last time around, as he pointed out, but, surprisingly, he’s also consistently polled well this cycle in South Carolina, the semblant seat of Southern graciousness. Republican voters in the South no less than in any other region want a Republican candidate who can capture the whole country and, right now, Romney looks to be that (he obviously does well in the East, for example, and he’s the leader in the Midwest, too). So, too, do they want a candidate who can capture independents. Of course, that could be either Romney or Perry. In Florida, for example, independent voters would favor either Romney or Perry over a president who performed poorly during the debt ceiling debate. Point is: It’s hard to see Romney beating out Perry in the South, but it could happen, especially if he keeps his head down and campaigns assiduously across the country. In this, as in anything, humility and hard work go a long way.