US Republican Presidential Candidates Court Southern Conservatives

In U.S. presidential politics, the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination heads south Tuesday with primaries in Alabama and Mississippi.  

Public opinion polls show close races in both southern states with plenty at stake for the top three Republican presidential contenders, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former U.S. senator Rick Santorum and former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich.

GOP Delegates in Hawaii, Alabama and Missippi

Fast Facts

Population: 1,374,810
White residents: 24.7%
Black residents: 1.6%
Of Hispanic origin: 8.9%
Of Asian origin 38.6% Unemployment rate: 6.6%*
Per capital income: $28,882

Population: 4,802,740
White residents: 68.5%
Black residents: 26.2%
Of Hispanic origin: 3.9%
Of Asian origin: 1.1% Unemployment rate: 8.0%*
Per capital income: $22,984

Population: 2,978,512
White residents: 59.1%
Black residents: 37.0%
Of Hispanic origin: 2.7%
Of Asian origin: 0.9% Unemployment rate: 10.4%*
Per capital income: $19,977

Sources: U.S. Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics *figures from December 2011

Romney has a big lead in the delegate count for the party nomination but continues to struggle in winning the support of very conservative Republicans, Tea Party supporters and evangelical Christians.

Romney has focused his campaign on economic issues and the argument that he would be the strongest Republican candidate against President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in the general election in November.

Romney has also criticized the president’s foreign policy record including his handling of Iran, which drew an enthusiastic response at a campaign rally in Mississippi. "They provide weapons to the Taliban that are used against our soldiers and kill our soldiers.  That is who Iran is.  The idea of Iran with fissile material, with nuclear material to be sent into the hands potentially of terrorists is unthinkable," he said.

Both Santorum and Gingrich are looking to slow Romney’s momentum in Tuesday’s southern primaries.  

Santorum is in second place in the delegate count and continues to raise doubts about Romney’s ability to win conservative support.  He spoke on NBC’s "Meet the Press." "All this, quote, 'wind at his back,' and yet he can’t close the deal.  You know, winning Ohio, winning Michigan by the skin of his teeth, in both cases [our campaign is] being outspent overwhelmingly.  But you know what?  That is okay because we’ve got the grassroots support," he said.

Gingrich has won only two contests so far, South Carolina and his home state of Georgia.  Failure to win at least one of Tuesday’s contests could accelerate calls for him to drop out of the race and let Santorum remain as Romney’s sole conservative challenger.

Gingrich spoke to voters in Alabama. "Power comes from God to each one of you personally.  You are personally sovereign.  In America, you loan power to the government, the government never loans power to you," he said.

Romney, although ahead of the others, still has less than half the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

All three candidates have also hammered away at the president for high gas prices and for not doing enough to encourage new oil drilling around the country.  A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found high gas prices could hurt the president’s re-election bid.

Expert John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center told VOA’s "Encounter" program that it may take Romney weeks if not months before he can win the delegates he needs. "Mitt Romney still is the very likely nominee for the Republican Party but it is going to take a while.  There are some states looking ahead that are not necessarily friendly to Romney so I don’t think this is over.  But I do think that Romney has the clearest path to the nomination, but it is likely to be a long march rather than a knockout blow," he said.

Hawaii also votes Tuesday.  

Texas congressman Ron Paul remains in the Republican race but has yet to score a victory in any of the contests.

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