Romney, Rivals Court Southern Support on Vote Eve

Monday, 12 Mar 2012 05:26 PM

By Newsmax Wires

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Republican presidential contenders and their super PAC supporters campaigned aggressively on land, through the mail and over the airwaves Monday on the eve of primaries in Alabama and Mississippi which polls show have turned into tight three-way battles.

Mitt Romney's rivals had one goal:  Shake his standing as front-runner.

In the Deep South, one of the most conservative regions of the country, Romney and his Republican rivals polished their credentials with attacks on President Barack Obama's handling of the economy and the nation's use of energy. "The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is," said Rick Santorum.

But those criticisms were mere warm-up for the candidates going after each other. Gingrich is struggling for survival in Tuesday's primaries, and Santorum is laboring to redeem his claim that Romney can't secure the support of conservatives, particularly evangelicals who are part of the party's key base.

"If the opportunity provides itself in an open convention, they're not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who has been outspending his opponent 10-1 and can't win the election outright," Santorum said in a television interview as he campaigned across Alabama and Mississippi.

Romney countered, also on television. "We're closing the deal, state by state, delegate by delegate," he said, emphasizing his lead in the category that matters most.

He has more delegates than his rivals combined, and is amassing them at a rate that puts him on track to clinch control of nomination before the convention opens next summer, a prospect that his rivals prefer not to dwell on. AP's tally shows him with 454 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, Santorum with 217, Gingrich with 107 and Ron Paul with 47.

Public Policy Polling surveys showed a three-way jumble in each state ahead of tomorrows' contests. In Alabama, the three candidates were within 2 points of each other, inside the margin of error. In Mississippi, Gingrich led Romney by 33 percent to 31 percent, with Santorum at 27 percent.

"I do need your help," Romney told supporters who turned out in a rainstorm to hear him in Mobile, Alabama. "This could be an election that comes down to a very small margin."

Romney has opened a big lead over his rivals in collecting delegates to the nominating convention but has not been able to capture the hearts of conservatives who distrust his moderate stances as governor of liberal Massachusetts.

Even in Illinois, a Democratic-leaning state, Romney has more work to do. A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll found him slightly ahead of Santorum, 35 percent to 31 percent.

His campaign argues that Romney's rivals cannot catch him in the chase for delegates, but Santorum raised the possibility that no one would manage to win the 1,144 delegates to clinch the Republican nomination before the party's convention in late August.

"If this race continues on its current pace, it's going to be very difficult for anyone to get to the number of delegates that is necessary to win the majority at the convention," Santorum told reporters after an energy forum in Biloxi, Mississippi.

He said a long, drawn-out primary campaign would allow the conservative alternative to Romney to rise.

"If we are successful here, it will have a very positive effect," Santorum said. "People in Mississippi and Alabama want a conservative for sure, they want a conservative nominee."

Gingrich has vowed to stay in the race all the way to the convention but he will face growing pressure to drop out if he cannot pull out a win in the Deep South primaries on Tuesday. Alabama and Mississippi together have 90 delegates.

Evangelical voters play an outsized role in both state primaries. Four years ago, 77 percent of GOP primary voters in Alabama and 69 percent in Mississippi said they were born again or evangelicals, a group that Romney has struggled to bring to his side in the primaries. His best showing in a contested primary was 38 percent in Florida.

Hoping to establish a connection with Southerners, the former Massachusetts governor campaigned in Mobile, Ala., with comedian Jeff Foxworthy, whose trademark jokes that begin "You might be a redneck if. ..."

Romney isn't — he was born in Michigan, educated at Harvard and elected governor of Massachusetts. And he drew laughter from his audience when he poked fun at himself by saying he hoped to go hunting with an Alabama friend who "can actually show me which end of the rifle to point."

"We have a moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in," he says in an ad his campaign ran in both primary states, although not all the commercials were as self-deprecating as his rhetoric or as positive as his on-air message.

Restore Our Future, a super PAC that supports Romney, aired ads critical of Santorum for having voted in Congress to provide federal funding for Planned Parenthood, and attacking Gingrich for supporting action to combat climate change through cleaner sources of energy.

A radio ad the group aired across both states makes use of Santorum's own voice, including him saying in a debate last month that he was proud of the earmarks he has supported and that he had voted for federal education mandates even though they are against his principles.

"But you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team," he says.

The same organization hit Santorum in mail sent to thousands of homes in Alabama.

"Rick Santorum voted with Hillary Clinton to allow felons to vote. Typical behavior from Washington insider," says one mailing, which makes no mention of Romney.

Red, White and Blue Fund, which backs Santorum, was hardly kinder. It aired commercials saying that Romney and Obama "aren't much different" on key issues such as federal spending and supporting a requirement for individuals to purchase health care coverage. That's a reference to a Massachusetts law that Romney signed in his home state that bears similarities to the legislation Obama won from Congress.

Gingrich, who said over the weekend that Romney is the weakest Republican front-runner in nearly a century, is backed by a super PAC airing ads, as well.

His campaign is advertising at lower levels, including a commercial that hits Obama for high gas prices and another that says the president modeled his health care reform plan after the one Romney had enacted in Massachusetts.

The former House speaker also using a recorded phone message from Chuck Norris in Alabama.

"As president, Newt will repeal Obamacare, get rid of Obama's czars, and use commonsense measures, like building the Keystone Pipeline to lower the cost of gas to two and half dollars a gallon," says Norris, whose website notes he is a movie star and World Professional Middle Weight Karate Champion.

Santorum and Gingrich employed different approaches as they campaigned during the day, the former Pennsylvania senator more critical of Romney, while the former House speaker focused his attacks on Obama.

Santorum said his two rivals have changed positions on the issue of global warming.

"I didn't change as the climate changed. I stood tall. Now the climate has changed and everyone's for drilling now ... but understand that when times were tough, they were not and I was," he said.

Gingrich, at the same conference, said Obama is presiding over a "very anti-fossil fuel administration. The left wing environmental movement hates oil."

Romney made the economy his text for criticizing Obama.

He said the president wrongly thinks the country is doing better because of recent increases in employment. More than 200,000 jobs have been created in each of the past three months, but Romney said the president, "should go out and talk to the 24 million Americans who are out of work or stopped looking for work or are unemployed."


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