Mitt Romney Could Win His 'Away Games' in the South

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Conventional wisdom and the candidate himself see Mississippi and Alabama as tough for Romney, but don't count him out yet.

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The expectations game is starting all over again for Mitt Romney. A wave of new polls shows the former Massachusetts governor is in the hunt to win Republican presidential primaries Tuesday in Mississippi, Alabama, or both.

We've seen this movie before, just last week when it seemed Romney might pull off a counter-intuitive victory in Tennessee. Instead, he barely squeaked by in must-win Ohio -- and the night didn't seem quite so triumphant.

It would be a massive understatement to say Romney, a Mormon from the northeast, is not a natural fit with the GOP primary electorate in the South. Nearly three-quarters of Tennessee primary voters last week were white evangelical or born-again Christians and 41 percent were "very conservative." In Massachusetts last week, the total in each category was 15 percent. In Mississippi in 2008, 69 percent of Republican primary voters were born again or evangelical Christians.

No wonder Romney calls the Southern primaries "a bit of an away game."

Yet polls in both Alabama and Mississippi show very close races, in some cases with Romney in the lead. Romney is also aided by superior organization, super PAC advertising on his behalf, and influential backers. He just won the endorsement of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who was elected in November with 61 percent of the vote and still has his organization in place. Strategist Mike Murphy tweeted that Romney could win Mississippi because the GOP's "country club wing" is strong there.

"Conventional wisdom is that Romney can't win in the deep South. We'd love to turn that on its head on Tuesday and we're trying," Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member based in Jackson, Miss., said in an interview. "There's a serious effort to try to pull and upset. But it would clearly be an upset. Romney is the underdog down here."

Romney has less to lose than Newt Gingrich, who has staked his campaign on winning in the South, and Rick Santorum, who contends he offers the sharpest conservative contrast to President Obama. Both lag Romney in delegates and can't afford to fall further behind.

Romney has delegate math in his favor. What he needs, and what has been so tantalizingly out of reach so far, is a surprise win or two that will finally convince Gingrich, Santorum and wary GOP voters that he really does have this thing locked up.

Image: Dan Anderson / Reuters

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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