Santorum Says Romney Can’t Close ‘Deal’ With Republicans

March 12 (Bloomberg) -- Bloomberg's Peter Cook reports on cash troubles for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney as he increases spending in the extended fight for the Republican nomination. He speaks on Bloomberg Television's "Inside Track." (Source: Bloomberg)

The Republican presidential candidates snacked on hickory-smoked ribs, used grits as a campaign prop and joked about shooting rifles with a comedian famous for “redneck” humor as they made a final push for victories in two Deep South primaries.

On the eve of contests in Mississippi and Alabama, Mitt Romney sought to solidify his front-runner status with folksy appeals to Southern voters. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich each sought to present himself as the fiercest opponent to President Barack Obama in the close, three-way race for the nomination.

Speaking to rain-drenched voters outside a diner in Mobile, Alabama, yesterday, Romney framed the race as a fight for delegates.

“This could be an election that comes down to a very small margin between the three people running here most aggressively,” he said. “I need even more delegates. So if you guys are able to do that for me, we could well take this over the top at a very fast pace.”

Romney is seeking to derail Gingrich and Santorum, both of whom are looking to today’s voting to keep their campaigns afloat. Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman, has staked his campaign on Southern victories, and a poor showing could scuttle his candidacy. Santorum is looking to keep his status as Romney’s main challenger by showing the front-runner can’t win the support of rank-and-file Republicans and by driving Gingrich from the race.

Photographer: Jeff Haller/Keyhole Photo/Corbis

Newt Gingrich at a campaign stop at Cobalt restaurant in Orange Beach, Alabama on March 10, 2012. Close

Newt Gingrich at a campaign stop at Cobalt restaurant in Orange Beach, Alabama on March 10, 2012.

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Photographer: Jeff Haller/Keyhole Photo/Corbis

Newt Gingrich at a campaign stop at Cobalt restaurant in Orange Beach, Alabama on March 10, 2012.

Delegate Fight

“Quit listening to these political mathematicians,” Santorum told reporters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Looking at the states ahead, we have as good a chance if not a better chance, just if things continue to go the way they are to end up with more delegates than Governor Romney.”

Romney has secured more delegates than any rival, collecting 454 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, compared with 217 for Santorum and 107 for Gingrich, according to Associated Press estimates. U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who is focused on winning delegates to have greater influence over the party platform, has 47 delegates.

Still, Romney has struggled to win evangelical Christians and social conservatives who are skeptical of his positions on such issues as abortion and gay marriage. Success in today’s contests would help ease concerns about his appeal within the party.

Born-Again Christians

In the 2008 Republican primary election, 77 percent of voters in Alabama and 69 percent in Mississippi identified themselves as born again or evangelicals, according to exit polls.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who called the races in the two states “away games” for him, tried to connect with voters in Mobile yesterday by telling them he is looking forward to hunting with his new supporter, Jeff Foxworthy, a comedian whose signature one-liners begin, “You might be a redneck if...”

“You can actually show me which end of the rifle to point,” he joked to Foxworthy.

Santorum and Gingrich argued that the Republican primary fight has demonstrated Romney would make a poor challenger to Obama, even with the president’s vulnerabilities.

“We need someone who is a conservative to beat Barack Obama,” Santorum said yesterday. “You can’t run a moderate against a liberal and hope to have the differentiation.”

Hickory-Smoked Ribs

Yesterday afternoon, Santorum greeted voters at Dreamland BBQ in Tuscaloosa before dining on a slab of the restaurant’s hickory-smoked ribs.

A few hours later, in back-to-back separate appearances, Santorum and Gingrich jockeyed to emerge as the strongest fiscal and social conservative in the race at a forum sponsored by the Alabama Republican party.

Santorum charged his rivals with supporting government bailouts of the financial services industry, health-care mandates and supporting action to combat climate change by regulating greenhouse gas emissions -- all proposals unpopular with most Republican voters and opposed by the former Pennsylvania senator.

“You want to elect the most electable conservative?” Santorum asked the audience. “First elect a conservative.”

Gingrich touted his long record in Republican politics, citing his work helping build the Georgia Republican party, electing Republicans to Congress and returning his party to power in Congress during the 1994 elections.

Taking on Obama

“I hope you’ll decide having an experienced leader who’s actually helped do these things before and who’s capable of taking on Obama head on is what we need as a party,” he said. “I do not believe the other two candidates in this race can beat President Obama.”

The latest polls show Romney benefiting from a split in support between his two rivals.

In a Public Policy Polling survey of likely primary voters in Mississippi that was released yesterday, Gingrich led with 33 percent, followed by Romney with 31 percent and Santorum with 27 percent. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

A survey by the same organization in Alabama showed a near three-way tie: Romney, 31 percent; Gingrich, 30 percent; Santorum, 29 percent. The error margin was 4 percentage points.

The other remaining Republican presidential contender, Paul, had 7 percent in Mississippi and 8 percent in Alabama.

Advertising Wars

As they campaigned across the South, the three leading candidates -- with the help of super-PACS -- have exchanged verbal jabs in advertisements on the airways.

A radio ad aired by the Romney-friendly political action committee Restore Our Future attacked Santorum in his own voice for supporting earmarks, using a clip of him saying in a debate last month that he was proud to vote for such targeted federal spending.

Romney and his allies dominated the airwaves in Alabama and Mississippi over the last week, according to data from New York- based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

In Alabama, the Romney campaign and Restore Our Future aired ads 1,503 times on broadcast television between March 5 and yesterday, four times the 374 ads aired by Gingrich and the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future PAC. The pro-Santorum Red White and Blue Fund aired ads 282 times.

In Mississippi, Restore Our Future aired ads 865 times, compared with 346 for Gingrich and Winning Our Future, and 300 for Red White and Blue Fund.

The attacks extended even into the proper way to serve grits. Last week, Romney opened a March 9 event in Jackson, Mississippi, by telling voters that he started the day with “a biscuit and some cheesy grits.”

Gingrich ridiculed the remark yesterday, painting Romney as out of touch with southern voters. Southerners typically forgo cheese on their grits, preferring butter, salt and pepper.

“I kind of feel relatively at home here,” Gingrich said in Birmingham. “This morning I had grits which was a very normal thing to do.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Birmingham, Alabama at llerer@bloomberg.net; Hans Nichols in Mobile, Alabama at hnichols2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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