2012 ELECTION

Mitt Romney faces challenges in South

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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mitt Romney faces a tough sell in the Deep South. With Mississippi and Alabama primaries coming up next Tuesday, there's concern that he's too slick, not really a conservative.

In a region where the evangelical vote is important, some are skeptical about his Mormon faith.

But if Romney wins the Republican nomination and it's a November choice between him and Democratic President Barack Obama, the former Massachusetts governor may be just good enough for some Southerners.

"If push comes to shove and he gets the nomination, I'll go in the voting booth like this and vote for him," says Mississippi retiree David Wilke, holding his nose. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented Georgia for 20 years and now lives in Virginia, needs to win every state from South Carolina to Texas to get to the convention this summer, spokesman R.C. Hammond says.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's staff says he'll be aggressive in states where Gingrich expects to perform well. Gingrich scored an early primary victory in South Carolina and won this week in Georgia.

Romney added a Virginia win this week - Gingrich and Santorum weren't on the ballot - to his Jan. 31 win in Florida, which is culturally not entirely a Southern state, despite its geography.

Santorum won Tennessee. After Mississippi and Alabama next week, Louisiana votes March 24, North Carolina and Texas May 8, Arkansas May 22 and Texas May 29.

Santorum and Gingrich are invoking God and country as they campaign in Mississippi and Alabama. They're winning applause by saying Obama has been a weak ally for Israel, a point that resonates with Christian conservatives.

Romney and Obama also expressed support for Israel this week in speeches to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, but Mary Dockery, director of a Christian youth group in central Mississippi, said she's voting for Santorum because she believes he's the most pro-Israel candidate.

"In God's word, he tells us about the blessings of those people who support Israel," Dockery said at a Santorum rally Wednesday night at the Mississippi Agriculture Museum in Jackson. Santorum didn't mention Gingrich during his appearance at the rally before about 400 people, but he drew parallels between Romney and Obama on the government's role in health care.

A boy at the rally hollered, "Obamneycare," momentarily drawing attention.

"If we win in Mississippi, this will be a two-person race," Santorum told the audience, which included several families with young children and some people wearing tea party shirts.

Roughly 200 people turned out Thursday morning to hear Gingrich at a Jackson hotel. He spoke at length about oil production but got the most applause when he said Obama has an arrogant belief in big government.

"Obamaism is a repudiation of the Declaration of Independence," Gingrich declared. Still, Romney is supported by top Republicans in many Southern states, including in Alabama, and he'll speak in Birmingham on Friday.

He's been endorsed by former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, though Riley concedes Romney is an underdog in the state.

"Mitt Romney is the only candidate with the leadership and business experience to take our country through this difficult economic situation and bring us out stronger," Riley said. "If there was ever time to have a job creator in the White House, it is now."

In Louisiana, which holds its primary in two weeks, state Republican Executive Director Jason Dore said support for GOP candidates seems to be fluctuating to match the national battle over the nomination. He said Romney supporters are particularly active in the New Orleans area, while Ron Paul is getting much of the attention on college campuses.

"Gingrich and Santorum seem to both ebb and flow all the time," Dore said.

In Mississippi, Romney has been endorsed by most statewide elected officials, including Sen. Thad Cochran and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves. Both of the state's Republican National Committee members, Henry Barbour and Jeanne Luckey, are supporting him.

"Folks in Mississippi are just like Republicans in other places. They care about jobs and the economy and who can beat Obama. That's why I'm supporting Romney," said Barbour, a prominent state lobbyist whose uncle, former Gov. Haley Barbour, is withholding an endorsement until Republicans choose a nominee.

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