By JULIE PACE, Associated Press
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Eager to connect with Southern voters, Mitt Romney on Friday burnished his business credentials — and his newfound love for cheesy grits — as he sought support for his Republican presidential campaign in Alabama and Mississippi.
Winless in the South, except for Florida, Romney has been battling against a perceived weakness in the region ahead of Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. Still, the Michigan native and former Massachusetts governor has been looking for ways to show voters in the Deep South that he can relate to them.
Romney greeted supporters at a town hall meeting Friday in Jackson, Miss., with a hearty "Morning, y'all!" and said he started the day off right with "a biscuit and some cheesy grits."
He appeared later Friday in Birmingham, Ala., with Randy Owen of the band Alabama, who gave the GOP front-runner a ringing endorsement and sang a few lines of "Sweet Home Alabama" at his urging.
With a solid lead in the race for delegates to the party's summer convention, Romney's campaign says the math makes it almost impossible for his rivals to catch up, regardless of the results Tuesday. Romney's main rivals, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, see the Southern states as an opportunity to make up lost ground.
Romney spent little talk talking about his cross-party opponents Friday, instead focusing his attention on President Barack Obama. With a heavy emphasis on his private-sector background, Romney cast himself as better-suited to tackle the nation's economic problems.
"In business, you have to be a fiscal conservative. If not, you go out of business," he said.
In Birmingham, he went so far as to say "I'm not really a politician." But the former governor and two-time presidential candidate quickly backtracked, saying what he meant was that "my heart is a conservative businessman."
Romney spoke as the latest jobs numbers showed the economy added 227,000 jobs in February, though the unemployment rate was unchanged at 8.3 percent, largely because more people streamed into the workforce.
While he did not directly address the fresh economic data, Romney more broadly criticized Obama for failing to bring the unemployment rate back below 8 percent.
Romney had no public events scheduled this weekend, and it was unclear whether he would return to the South ahead of Tuesday's primaries.
One of his key supporters in Mississippi said that while Romney may be an underdog in the state, his campaign infrastructure gives him the opportunity for a strong showing.
"We are the most organized campaign in Mississippi," said Austin Barbour, a national chairman for Romney's campaign. "We're an underdog in Mississippi, but we're a fighting underdog."
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