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POLITICS: White House

Romney no longer singing the Dixie blues

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Photo - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Asheville, N.C. (AP Photo)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Asheville, N.C. (AP Photo)
Politics,White House,Brian Hughes,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

Mitt Romney, the personification of the wealthy New England patriarch, left many wondering whether he'd be able to win over the voters south of the Mason-Dixon who are so critical to his effort to unseat President Obama.

But with the Deep South squarely united behind the former Massachusetts governor, and Romney's campaign increasingly bullish about battleground states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, those concerns have largely faded as Election Day approaches.

Though far from conceding Virginia and Florida, Obama's campaign has increasingly focused on building the president's support in the Midwest to offset Romney's advantage in the South. And with the Republican base seemingly secured, Romney has pivoted to the political center to expand his appeal in the election's homestretch.

It's a dramatic shift for Romney, who did so poorly in the Deep South during the Republican primaries that he started referring to each of those contests as an "away game."

What changed in the land of Dixie?

"After Obama carpet bombed Romney all spring and summer, people then got a chance to see him unfiltered in the debates," former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, told The Washington Examiner. "They found out all that garbage didn't ring true. They liked what they saw."

In Florida, Romney was behind Obama by 2 percentage points before the debates, according to Real Clear Politics' calculations. He is now up by 1.7 percentage points there. And Romney went from trailing by 3.5 percentage points in Virginia in early October to being up by 1.4 percentage points as of Thursday.

Barbour compared Romney's situation to the 1980 presidential election when Southerners had to be convinced that Ronald Reagan was not the caricature promoted by Democrats and President Jimmy Carter.

With the reliably red South now safely in his corner, Romney's days of professing his love for catfish and grits to win over skeptical voters are over. And his Mormon faith, initially seen as an albatross in the former home of the Confederacy, has done little to hurt him in a devoutly Christian region.

It was never likely that Romney would lose deep-red states like Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina. But Republicans were worried that Romney's poor showing in those states during the primaries would raise doubts about him in Florida and Virginia, where voters share similar attitudes and which are far more consequential to the presidential race.

One of the chief reasons the South is falling in line behind Romney is that voters there can't support Obama, analysts said.

"He may not have been a lot of Southerners' first choice, but he's not Obama," Charles Bullock of the University of Georgia, said of Romney. "It's the only boat leaving the dock right now."

Romney has grown so confident in North Carolina that his campaign is moving resources to other states.

And much of the rest of the South will fall in line, too, Barbour said.

"As we like to say, the rest of the country has become more like the South," the Republican leader said, pointing to in-migration throughout the region. "It's less 'Southern' because the economies have changed-- it's more urban and suburban now."

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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