Mitt Romney
3:20 am
Sun March 11, 2012

To Woo South, Romney Needs More Than A Twang

Originally published on Sun March 11, 2012 10:29 am

Mitt Romney picked up some support in Saturday's contests, but there may be trouble lurking for him in the near future as the GOP race moves to the Deep South.

Despite his second-place finish in Kansas, Romney scored victories Saturday in caucuses in Guam, the Northern Marianas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He also won county conventions in Wyoming.

Tuesday's primaries are in Alabama and Mississippi, and the reddest of states are proving to be a tough sell for the former Massachusetts governor. He's trying his best to connect with the Republican base.

When In Mississippi...

On this swing through Dixie, Romney seems to have picked up a new twang, greeting crowds with "Morning, y'all!" He's also trying a new diet of biscuits and grits.

"Some of us have been saying 'y'all' all our lives, and you know it," says attorney David Allen of Biloxi, Miss. "But you take somebody from Massachusetts who says 'yawl,' you know he is not from here."

Allen still hasn't decided who he'll vote for on Tuesday, but Romney's not in the mix.

"To me, too much of what he does is scripted, and I'm just not real comfortable with that," he says.

The Romney campaign is doing what it can to overcome the perception that the candidate is out of touch by lining up bona fide Southerners to vouch for him. He has the endorsement of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, and Bob Riley, the popular former governor of Alabama.

At a tractor company in Birmingham on Friday, Randy Owen of the country music band Alabama opened a rally for Romney. Owen talked about his working-class roots and encouraged his native state to support Romney.

"I love this man, and I love his family, and I love what he stands for," he said.

Southern Obstacles

Grady Thornton of Center Point, Ala., was in the crowd. The Romney delegate says the issue is not whether Romney can connect with working class voters.

"I'm not looking for somebody to play golf with. My wife is not gonna have tea and tennis with Ann. I'm looking for a leader," he says.

Thornton likes Romney's executive credentials. He acknowledges the obstacles Romney faces in the South, particularly with Christian conservatives troubled by Romney's Mormon faith.

"I'm also a Protestant, and when my Southern Baptist friends ask me about his faith, I remind them that the last two presidents we had that had some association with the Southern Baptist faith was Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter," Thornton says, "and I ask, 'Well, how did that work out for you?' "

Despite Thornton's argument, religious voters in the South generally line up with one of Romney's rivals: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Romney isn't connecting with the Republican base here, says Natalie Davis, a political scientist and pollster at Birmingham-Southern College.

"When you ask voters, 'Does he share your values? Is he one of us?' You don't get a resounding yes when they're talking about Mitt Romney," Davis says.

Voting Against Obama

Even if he doesn't win Alabama or Mississippi Tuesday, or Louisiana later in the month, Davis says that doesn't mean Romney will have trouble here in the fall, should he pick up the GOP nomination.

"The best thing Romney has going for him in November in the South is his opponent," she says. "There is so much animosity and visceral negative feelings about President Obama that Romney wins in a walk this November in the Deep South."

Retired real estate broker and Gingrich supporter Dodie White of Montrose, Ala., is one of those voters.

"Honestly, I don't care who runs against Obama, I'm gonna vote for them ... I don't care which of the three get there," she says. "I will vote for them to get him out of the White House."

Authentic "y'all" or not, even a candidate perceived as out of touch with average folks isn't likely to change a red state to blue.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Despite his second-place finish in Kansas, Mitt Romney did pick up a few delegates in caucuses in Guam, the Northern Marianas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. And he won the county conventions in Wyoming. But there may be trouble lurking for Romney, as the GOP race moves to Alabama and Mississippi this week. These reddest of states are proving to be a tough sell for his campaign.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports that Romney is trying his best to connect with the Republican base.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: On this swing through Dixie, Romney seems to have picked up a new twang...

MITT ROMNEY: Morning y'all.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ROMNEY: Good to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

ELLIOTT: ...and a new diet.

ROMNEY: I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits. I'll tell you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROMNEY: ...delicious.

DAVID ALLEN: Some of us have been saying y'all all our lives and you know it. But you take somebody from Massachusetts who says yawl, you know he is not from here.

ELLIOTT: Biloxi, Mississippi attorney David Allen still hasn't decided who he'll vote for on Tuesday, but Romney is not in the mix.

ALLEN: To me, too much of what he does is scripted and I'm just not real comfortable with that.

ELLIOTT: The Romney campaign is doing what it can to overcome the perception that the candidate is out of touch by lining up bona fide Southerners to vouch for him. He has the endorsement of Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant and the popular former governor of Alabama, Bob Riley.

Friday at a tractor company in Birmingham, Randy Owen of the country music band Alabama opened a rally for Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

RANDY OWEN: Can I get everybody to say, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE RESPONSE)

ELLIOTT: Owen talked about his working-class roots and encouraged his native state to support Romney.

OWEN: I love this man and I love his family. I love what he stands for.

ELLIOTT: Grady Thornton, of Center Point, Alabama, was in the crowd. He's a Romney delegate and says the issue is not whether Romney can connect with working-class voters.

GRADY THORNTON: I'm not looking for somebody to play golf with. My wife is not going to have tea and tennis with Anne. I'm looking for a leader.

ELLIOTT: Thornton likes Romney's executive credentials. He acknowledges the obstacles Romney faces in the South, particularly with Christian conservatives troubled by Romney's Mormon faith.

THORNTON: I'm also a Protestant. And when my Southern Baptist friends ask me about his faith, I remind them that the last two presidents we had that had some association to the Southern Baptist faith was Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. And I ask, well, how did that work out for you?

ELLIOTT: Despite Thornton's argument, religious voters in the South generally line up with one of Romney's rivals - former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Natalie Davis is a political scientist and pollster at Birmingham Southern College. She says Romney isn't connecting with the Republican base here.

PROFESSOR NATALIE DAVIS: Well, when you ask voters, you know, does he share your values? Is he one of us? You don't get a resounding yes when they're talking about Mitt Romney.

ELLIOTT: Even if he doesn't win Alabama or Mississippi on Tuesday, or Louisiana later in the month, Davis says that doesn't mean Romney will have trouble here in the fall should he pick up the GOP nomination.

DAVIS: The best thing Romney has going for him in November in the South is his opponent. There is so much animosity and visceral negative feelings about President Obama that Romney wins in a walk this November in the deep South.

ELLIOTT: Retired real estate broker and Newt Gingrich supporter Dodie White, of Montrose, Alabama, is one of those voters.

DODIE WHITE: Honestly, I don't care who runs against Obama. I'm going to vote for them. Any of them. I don't care which of the three get there, I will vote for them to get him out of the White House.

ELLIOTT: Authentic y'all or not, even a candidate perceived as out of touch with average folks isn't likely to change a red state to blue.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.