GOP candidates struggle to connect with conservative Southern voters

In the past few days, three Republican presidential candidates have campaigned in one of the most conservative sections of the country — two states at the heart of the Deep South.

It sounded like a perfect match, red meat for red states. But, instead, everybody seemed a little uncomfortable.

At rallies in Mississippi and Alabama, which hold primaries Tuesday, the candidates awkwardly fished for something they might have in common with Southern audiences. Newt Gingrich talked about gun racks but got his facts wrong. Mitt Romney announced, “I like grits.” Rick Santorum tried to describe a connection to Alabama but admitted he was not a frequent visitor.

In small towns, many voters said they had noticed a cultural disconnect between themselves and the three East Coast-based candidates vying to lead their party. The candidates talked about conservative values, of course.

But, to people in pine-woods towns, it didn’t seem like they were living them out in the same way.

“Southern people are conservative by need. You know, if you lived in the South 40 years ago, you’d know what I’m talking about,” said Donald Crocker, who has cut hair in tiny Leakesville since 1966. He meant that Southerners had learned to live poor, relying on their churches and their neighbors and not expecting government help. Even when their forebears received government handouts — cheese and powdered milk — they scrimped and saved and used it all. He still tries to live that way, charging just $9 per haircut and $10 for a flattop.

He felt strongly that President Obama would destroy this way of life, displaying a bumper sticker that said: “If you voted for Obama in ’08 to prove you’re not a racist, vote for someone else in ’12 to prove you’re not an idiot!” But he suspected none of the GOP candidates knew what he was talking about.

“I will vote for them” against Obama, Crocker said. “But they don’t understand it like I do.”

This unease has helped make the two states’ primaries hard to predict — in Alabama, local polls have shown all three candidates as front-runners. In the long run, it could also sap enthusiasm across the GOP’s Southern base, which will be crucial in swing states like Virginia at the edges of the old Confederacy.

This is a rare moment in Republican politics. Usually, the role of Mississippi and Alabama is to follow, not to choose. The states have voted for every GOP nominee since Ronald Reagan. But their primaries have usually come too late to matter, and the nominee has already been picked.

The two are left out in other ways: They haven’t produced a president since the Confederate president, Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis. They have never produced a GOP nominee. This time around, former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (R) thought about a presidential bid, was criticized for his recollections of Mississippi under segregation and eventually gave up.

“If you look at the South, we produce great football coaches. We produce great generals. Great soldiers. And we produce our share of colorful politicians,” said Gary Palmer, president of the conservative Alabama Policy Institute. But few presidents. “We haven’t had one since Jimmy Carter [of Georgia]. And that may explain it.”

Right now, however, these states have everybody’s attention: Tuesday’s primaries could help Romney pull away, or show that Gingrich has run out of comebacks.

It was easy to see that Deep South campaigning was a unfamiliar art.

“I am not a frequent visitor to the state,” Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, told a banquet of conservatives in Mobile, Ala.

Back in Iowa, Santorum bragged that he had visited all of that state’s 99 counties. Here, Santorum was flailing for any Alabama connection. He recalled a story about the time that a political opponent had trash-talked Pennsylvania, by saying it was “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but Alabama in between.”

The crowd laughed softly and seemed to understand that this was not a compliment to Alabama.

Romney’s efforts to connect focused on food. “I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits,” he said in Jackson, Miss. “I’ll tell ya — delicious.” In other states, the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign had stretched out giant versions of the state flag as part of his backdrop. But Mississippi’s flag — which incorporates the Confederate flag — was set behind a tractor, limp and almost invisible.

Gingrich, who was born in Pennsylvania but represented Georgia in Congress, is the most Southern of the three. He played that up, tossing out references to Wal-Mart and bass fishing.

Showing off his superior knowledge of grits, he declared in Dothan, Ala.: “I like grits. I like cheese grits. I like grits with gravy. There’s a number of ways you can have grits.” But Gingrich also fumbled. He railed against the Chevy Volt, calling the electric vehicle too liberal — an “Obama car” — because “you can’t put a gun rack in a Volt.”

The line fell flat. A Volt can accommodate a gun rack, according to the manufacturer. But you probably wouldn’t want to install one in a sedan — the familiar kind of gun rack is better in a truck.

Some Southern voters said they had been won over by one candidate’s pitch: people respected Gingrich’s intellect, or were drawn by Santorum’s stand on abortion. In Pascagoula, Miss., retirees Elizabeth Davis and Mimm Bilbo went to a Romney rally undecided — and came out convinced.

“He was genuine. I think he could do a good job. He’s not in it for the money. He likes to turn things around,” Davis said.

Beforehand, she said, “I wished he wasn’t Mormon. I wished he was Christian.” Then, she said, she recalled Mormons doing good work in the community. “I thought about it, and I never had any problem with Donny Osmond being Mormon.”

But as the candidates’ attack ads blared from car radios, the strongest emotion for many Mississippi voters was no emotion at all.

“I don’t think there is a strong runner in the pack,” said John “Pat” Brown, who as publisher of a small newspaper in Magee, Miss., is a magnet for political chatter. “I’m not sure they relate to your typical Mississippi citizen. We probably won’t have real big voter turnout.”

At the Bullz-I pawnshop in nearby Lucedale, people visit looking their worst. They pawn their kids’ video games, their grandmother’s diamonds (which often aren’t diamonds) and power washers that won’t wash. As hopeful as the barber was about small-town human nature, the pawnbrokers were cynical: if somebody pawns it, they assume “it’s broken and stolen.”

What they wanted in a conservative candidate was somebody who could change things — fix the economy that brings desperate people in with cheap stuff. They wondered whether anyone was up to the task. “It would take a dictatorship,” said Aaron “Lee” Williams, 28. He said he liked Santorum more than the others.

“Would you agree,” Williams said, turning to his co-worker, “that it’s a pig in a poke?”

“I would,” said Manley Tisdale, 33. The saying meant that whoever they got, he wouldn’t be as good as advertised.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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