By Mary Kate Cary |
It's time for Mitt Romney to roll up those perfectly tailored sleeves and get his hands greasy. Not dirty. Greasy. As in, "I need a napkin because I just ate a lot of this not-so-nutritious-but-oh-so-delicious southern food."
It won't be easy otherwise for him to connect with southern voters. He's Mormon; they're not. He's extremely wealthy; they've been slow to recover from the jolts of 2008 and 2009. They love NASCAR and college football. He doesn't do sports. And his record so far—losses in South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Georgia—suggest the romance has, to say the least, not reached full bloom.
Romney's team is aware of this and is preparing its standard response. It sent anti-Rick Santorum mailers to voters in Alabama last week, and bought ad time in both Mississippi and Alabama as well.
But without a personal touch, without some way to find common ground with the values-first voters who so often determine the outcome of southern elections, the ads could backfire, and his inability to connect could begin to have major ramifications.
It could force Romney to spend on rear-guard actions in states he has little chance to win. It could embolden his opponents at a time he should be sewing up the nomination. And it could leave some states in play for President Obama in November.
Romney remains the Republican front-runner and the only candidate, for now, with a clear path to garnering the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination. His principal opponents in the primary—Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich—have no choice but to deploy all available resources against him and each other in the region that surely is their last, best chance to stop Romney.
The March calendar doesn't look that friendly for the former Massachusetts governor with Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, and Missouri all looming. But if Romney can pull off just one victory, it will strengthen his image, deflate his opponents' chances and position him to wrap up the nomination.
Anything can happen, and it would be a tremendous boost for Romney to show the organizational strength to win in hostile territory.
But the truth is Romney's southern woes will extend only through the primary season. Once November rolls around, it will be a contest between a big-government Democrat and a Republican who, at least, talks of fiscal responsibility. And, in that contest, Romney will view the South as a strength, not a weakness.
About Ford O'Connell Republican Strategist, Conservative Activist, and Political Analyst
David Crockett Author of 'Running Against the Grain: How Opposition Candidates Win Presidential Election'
Jamie Chandler Professor at Hunter College
Judson Phillips Founder of Tea Party Nation
Krystal Ball MSNBC Contributor and Former Democratic Nominee for Congress in the First District of Virginia