BOSTON—Mitt Romney's presidential campaign could face its biggest test as the Republican presidential primary shifts to the South, where the Republican electorate--see Newt Gingrich's victories in South Carolina and Georgia and Rick Santorum's in Tennessee--has not been friendly to the former Massachusetts governor's 2012 bid.
Romney's aides argue it will be nearly "impossible" for his rivals to catch him in the race for primary delegates, but the upcoming contests in Mississippi and Alabama—two states where Romney is set to campaign Friday—could test the former Massachusetts governor's ability to woo the party's conservative base. A win for Santorum or Gingrich in those states would not only prolong the primary but also would limit Romney's ability to establish momentum in the race, in which he has tried to cast himself as his party's inevitable presidential nominee.
In an interview Thursday with Alabama's WAPI radio, Romney seemed to acknowledge the odds are against him in the South—but he insisted he'll gain key delegates out of the contests even if he doesn't win. "I realize it's a bit of an away game, but I also think we're going to pick up some support in the states that remain this month," Romney said.
Romney's senior aides insist their boss's standing in the South isn't as dire as some suggest. In a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, a senior Romney strategist, who declined to be named on the record, pointed to the candidate's wins in Florida and Virginia as signs of strength with southern voters. But Romney's win Virginia win was accompanied by an asterisk because he and Ron Paul were the only candidates to qualify for the state's primary ballot.
"Mitt has received more votes in the South than any other candidate, even taking Florida out," a senior Romney strategist said.
Looking ahead to Mississippi and Alabama, Romney's advisers acknowledge their candidate faces long odds against Santorum, who has a strong appeal to the states' social conservative base. Gingrich, who has cast the states as something of a last stand for his campaign, could also do well in the states because he's a fellow Southerner.
Henry Barbour, an influential Republican operative in Mississippi who is supporting Romney, acknowledged that the front-runner enters the region as an underdog. But he argued Romney could do better than expected because of his strong campaign organization and the endorsements of key Republicans in the region, which Barbour suggested would be more pivotal in the South than in prior contests.
"It won't be easy ... We're the underdog, and that's okay, but we're fighting," Barbour, who is the nephew of Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor, told Yahoo News. "The issue of electability is a strong one for Romney. His best chance is with people who are active in the party and really want to defeat Barack Obama."
Barbour went on: "Telling people that we want Mississippi to be the firewall for Romney probably makes people chuckle. But while the odds may be against us, we'd like to have the upset."
While there haven't been any recent polls in Mississippi, an Alabama Education Association poll released Thursday of likely Republican voters in the state found Romney leading Santorum by 9 points, 31 percent to 22 percent. Gingrich, meanwhile, registered at 21 percent in the poll, followed by Ron Paul, who garnered the support of just 6 percent.
While Romney will spend Friday in the region, there are no signs he's going to make a major push in the state. The candidate's schedule was unyielding before the Michigan vote and Super Tuesday, but this weekend, he is l tentatively scheduled to be off the road.
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