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York: In 'away game' in South, Romney may win big

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala.-- The talk about Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi has focused mostly on the consequences for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Would losses here force Gingrich out of the race? Would victories give Santorum his much-desired one-on-one showdown with Mitt Romney? What would it mean if either man won one state and lost the other?

There's been less discussion about what the Alabama and Mississippi races mean for Romney. They could mean a lot.

If Romney were to win either Mississippi or Alabama -- and the polls show he is competitive in both -- he would kill the idea that he can't win in the South. The region is the rock-solid base of the Republican Party, and so far, the former Massachusetts governor has not shown strength here. Yes, he won Virginia, but Romney and Ron Paul were the only candidates on the ballot. And yes, he won in Florida, but most political analysts don't really consider Florida Southern anymore. And besides, Barack Obama won both states in 2008.

In addition, Romney has already lost contests in South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Adding Alabama and Mississippi to his list of losses would cement the narrative that he can't win in the South.

But winning either one -- squeaker, blowout, it doesn't matter -- would put that narrative to rest. "If he could win one, I think it would say he is a national candidate that people could embrace in the South," says Clemson University political scientist David Woodard, author of The New Southern Politics. "It would show that he has some appeal to Southerners that he didn't have earlier."

It's fair to say Romney is not a natural when it comes to campaigning in the South. "I realize it's a bit of an away game," he said recently, and his performances on the stump have proved it.

"Morning, y'all!" Romney said Friday at a town hall in Jackson, Mississippi. "I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits." At another Mississippi event, he confessed, "I'm learning to say 'y'all,' and I like grits, and strange things are happening to me."

Appearing in Birmingham with Randy Owen, of the country group Alabama, Romney asked for a verse of "Sweet Home Alabama," the anthemic hit not by Alabama, but by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Owen gamely complied with a couple of lines, but it was clear to everyone it wasn't his song. Finally, for his last appearances before the primary, Romney enlisted the help of Jeff Foxworthy, the Georgia-born comedian best known for his "You might be a redneck if ..." routine. (Sample answer: "If you own a home that is mobile and 14 cars that aren't.")

The saving grace of it all is that Romney's tone and manner tell audiences he's (mostly) playing around. Everything about him says, "I'm not from around here," and he's not seriously trying to convince anyone he is. Nothing Romney has said even approaches the sheer dreadfulness of Hillary Clinton's "I don't feel no ways tired" performance during a 2007 visit to Selma.

So the Michigander who made Massachusetts his home and now lives mostly in California might do well here, particularly in Mississippi, where he has a lot of backing and good organization. But what if he doesn't win? "If he keeps losing, it puts more pressure on him to show that some of the ideas and values of the South are important to him as a candidate," says Woodard. "He's got to find a red Southern state that he can win to show his appeal."

Romney won't have a lot more chances. Louisiana holds its primary March 24. After that, it's Arkansas on May 22. It's entirely possible Romney could win the Republican nomination by capturing delegates in areas as diverse as Ohio and the Northern Marianas without winning in the party's strongest region. But he would undoubtedly take a lot of flak for that.

On the other hand, Romney has been dealing with "weak front-runner" stories for months now. Losses here would make that worse, but not terribly worse, and certainly not a disaster. And a win in Mississippi or Alabama would be huge. In this "away game," Romney has more to win than to lose.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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