Romney Braces for Long Quest as Race Turns Unfriendly

Rick Santorum pressed his attack against Mitt Romney, saying that on “key fronts of liberty” his opponent would be an inadequate choice to lead the charge against President Barack Obama as the two prime contenders for the Republican nomination battled for support in the Deep South.

Romney kicked off his two-day southern swing at the Port of Pascagoula in Mississippi. With a giant crane serving as a backdrop yesterday, he ignored his Republican rivals, accepted the endorsement of Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant and focused on Obama.

“We need someone who can win this campaign,” Bryant told reporters afterwards.

At a rally yesterday in Pelham, Alabama, Santorum also targeted Obama. Still, he went after Romney’s support of state health-care legislation as governor of Massachusetts, saying it undercuts his presidential bid because the plan is similar to the federal law Obama pushed through Congress.

“We need contrast if we’re going to win,” Santorum told about 250 listeners at the Pelham civic center. “And Governor Romney on key fronts of liberty is not a contrast.”

Romney blamed Obama for high unemployment and high gasoline prices, promising to cut the top income tax rate and increase oil drilling.

“We’ve gone from yes we can to it’s not my fault,” Romney said before around 100 supporters. “It is his fault. We’ve got to get energy independent in this country. We’re going to take advantage of our resources.”

Unfriendly Turf

Under Obama, domestic oil output is the highest in eight years and the U.S. has reversed a two-decade-long decline and increased the proportion of demand met from domestic sources over the last six years to an estimated 81 percent through the first 10 months of 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Santorum is seeking to win March 13 primaries in Alabama and Mississippi to demonstrate his appeal to the Republican conservative base. Romney, bracing for potential losses in what his campaign advisers agree is unfriendly turf for him, is trying to accumulate as many convention delegates as possible, even if he doesn’t finish first in any upcoming contest.

“Romney benefits from low expectations in these states,” said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California in San Diego. “If he does better than expected, it would signal that Republican voters, including evangelicals and strong conservatives, have begun to accept the inevitable.”

‘Increasingly Moribund’

If Santorum and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich “cannot outdo Romney in these states, their candidacies will appear to be increasingly moribund,” Jacobson said.

Alabama will send 50 delegates and Mississippi 40 to the national convention, awarding them on a proportional basis. Before those two states vote, Republicans in Kansas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam will choose delegates on March 10.

With 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, Romney has 421, according to the Associated Press, followed by Santorum with 181, Gingrich 107 and Paul 47.

Santorum, in his speech in Pelham, scoffed at the efforts Romney has made to distance himself from the federal health-care overhaul that, like the one enacted in Massachusetts, includes a mandate to purchase insurance.

State vs. Federal

“During the debates, he said, ‘No, no, I just support state-mandated health insurance laws. I just supported mandates from the state level imposing the state’s will on the people but not the federal government,’ as if that’s a big difference,” Santorum said, drawing chuckles from his audience.

He added: “You’re either for bottom up or you’re for top down, right?”

A woman in the crowd at one point interrupted Santorum’s comments to say, “I believe in you!”

Santorum responded: “Unlike President Obama, I believe in you.”

At the Romney rally, supporters touted his electability.

“He’s the one who’s going to beat Obama,” said Carol Ann Wilkerson, a retired tour operator from Ocean Springs.

Gingrich, under pressure from Santorum’s campaign to end his bid and allow the anti-Romney vote to consolidate, also is concentrating on the approaching southern primaries. Campaigning yesterday in Tupelo, Mississippi, he spotlighted the importance of the contests to his candidacy.

A Roller Coaster

“This race has been a roller coaster, up and down. I believe with your help next Tuesday, when we win here and we win in Alabama, we’ll be back up again,” he told a crowd of about 100, according to the AP.

The other remaining Republican candidate, U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, has set his sights on doing well in the March 10 caucuses in Kansas. He plans three stops in the state.

Romney continues to lead in Wyoming’s caucuses, which began on March 6 and end on March 10. With 30 percent of precincts reporting, Romney had 54 percent of the vote, followed by Santorum with 29 percent. An uncommitted slate was running third, with 14 percent.

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