The South, a key conservative region in the Republican presidential race, is wide open at this point, Politico
Many voters there find former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to be too moderate. There’s a natural affinity for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, given his Southern roots, but he has stumbled badly in the spotlight. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has jumped to the top of polls, but his staying power is unclear.
“We’re a little more split up this time,” Henry Barbour, the Republican National Committee (RNC) member for Mississippi, told Politico. “I don’t think there’s a natural favorite son of the South in this primary.”
A Gallup tracking poll last week showed Gingrich with 42 percent support in the South, far ahead of Romney with 15 percent and Perry with 13 percent.
Any candidate who hopes to beat Romney for the nomination probably will have to dominate among heavily conservative, evangelical Southern voters.
At this point, that appears unlikely. “There is nobody who is dominant in this region,” John Ryder, the veteran RNC member from Tennessee, told Politico. “That makes the contest even more open because the dominant region for the party doesn’t have a dominant candidate. Republican women are the real backbone of the party in the South, and they fundamentally mistrust Newt because of his personal life.”
As for the Texas governor, “I think that Gov. Perry, actually, has more of a Southern connection because of his mannerisms, because of his Southern accent. The speaker [Gingrich] tends to grab people more on the content of his message,” former South Carolina GOP Chairwoman Karen Floyd told Politico.
Ralph Reed, the longtime Southern Republican strategist who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, credits Gingrich with understanding “the syntax and the rhythm, the background music of Southern politics.”
But Reed told Politico that, in this unpredictable race, even Romney can take several Southern states, as no other candidate has wowed cultural conservatives in the region.
“I think it’s a mistake to assume that Romney can’t win a Southern state,” said Reed, a former Georgia Republican Party chairman. “I think a place like South Carolina is tough. Georgia will be tough. But you know, a place like Florida, Texas, maybe even Tennessee is more doable.”
And Reed questioned the South’s importance in any case. “Given the compression of the calendar and the proportional awarding of delegates, I think there’s less of a premium today on being a regional candidate,” he said. “Super Tuesday, as it was originally conceived, no longer really exists, because all the states have tried to leapfrog each other.”
As for Gingrich, if he maintains his momentum, Southerners may back him, even though they may not feel the same cultural connection to him that they did to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008.
But most GOP politicos say it’s unlikely that a candidate will galvanize voters in the South the way Huckabee did. “Newt obviously has regional appeal in the South, given his time as speaker and a congressman from Georgia, but I don’t think you can classify him as a Southern candidate by any means,” former Huckabee campaign manager Chip Saltsman told Politico. “Especially in a place like South Carolina, regional strength matters.”
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