For Mississippi Republicans, Mitt Romney's awkward declaration of his love for grits the other day may be a small price to pay for relevance.
Rarely does the small, Southern state get much attention, let alone a full-throated pander, from a presidential candidate. By the time Mississippi held its 2008 primary on March 11, the only candidates left in the race other than the presumptive nominee, John McCain, were Ron Paul and Alan Keyes. And as a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic nominee since Jimmy Carter, Mississippi doesn’t see much action in the general election.
But this year, in a drawn-out Republican race, Mississippi will hold an unusually competitive primary on Tuesday. Two other states likely to be overlooked in the general campaign, Republican-leaning Alabama and President Obama’s birth state of Hawaii, will also get their brief moment in the national spotlight when they vote on Tuesday.
Demographics and conservative political climates suggest the Southern states will favor Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum over a Mormon, ex-governor of Massachusetts who has flip-flopped on abortion and gay rights, but polls suggest anyone could win either state. Exit polls in Tennessee and Oklahoma, two Super Tuesday states Santorum won last week, show Romney struggling in the South to win over blue-collar workers, conservative voters, evangelical Christians, and strong tea-party supporters.
A Romney victory in the Deep South, the heart of the Republican Party, far from his comfort zones in the Northeast and the West, would go a long way in dispelling doubts about his ability to unite the party. He’s called the contests in the South “a bit of an away game,’’ turning to comedian and Georgia native Jeff Foxworthy and proclaiming his fondness for catfish to help him bridge the gap. Romney's prospects in Mississippi have been boosted by endorsements from all seven of the Republican statewide elected officials, including newly elected Gov. Phil Bryant.
"I would never have thought Romney would have gotten in the game like he has,'' said Marty Wiseman, a political science professor at Mississippi State University who serves as director of the Stennis Institute of Government. "I think Republicans here don't care who gets elected as long as he can beat Barack Obama, and that's helping them rationalize any problems they have with Mitt Romney.''
If Romney really wanted to go for broke in Mississippi, Wiseman joked, he would have traded the grits he ate for a "bowl of chitterlings. If he could eat that without making a face, they would label him a good ol' boy for the day."
The best possible scenario for Romney, barring an unlikely win in Alabama or Mississippi, would be for Gingrich and Santorum to split the two states and continue to divide conservative voters. If Gingrich walks away empty-handed on Tuesday, after winning only South Carolina and his home state of Georgia, he will have a harder time making the case that he should continue his campaign. Same goes for Santorum, though he has more wins under his belt.
Looking ahead, Romney was viewed as the heavy favorite in the Illinois primary on March 20, but a new Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows him only slightly ahead of Santorum, 35 percent to 31 percent. That is within the poll's 4 percentage-point margin of error.
Without an unexpected victory in Mississippi or Alabama on Tuesday, Romney will have a hard time ending this nomination battle anytime soon.