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Doubts linger on Romney in South

Romney fails to quiet doubts over evangelical vote in South

Photos By Jim Young/Reuters

Rick Santorum won the GOP primary on Tuesday in Tennessee, where he actively courted Christian conservatives.

Mitt Romney’s disappointing second-place finish in Tennessee last night deprived him of a victory that his campaign had hoped would dispel lingering doubts about the ability of a Mormon from Massachusetts to appeal to evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt.

Other than Virginia, which did not have Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich on the ballot, and Florida, Romney has not won a Southern state in either of his runs for the Republican presidential nomination.

Now, he heads into the next Southern primaries, in Mississippi and Alabama, which vote next Tuesday, and Louisiana, which votes March 24, with mounting questions about his ability to assuage the suspicions of the Republican Party’s religious base.

“Governor Romney has his strengths and weaknesses, and the evangelical vote is not his strongest vote, and that’s who dominated in the primaries in Tennessee and Oklahoma and Georgia,’’ said Chip Saltsman, a former chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, who was Mike Huckabee’s campaign manager in 2008.

Exit polls on Tuesday showed seven in 10 Tennessee GOP voters consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christians, more than any state surveyed so far in the primary. About three-fourths of Tennessee voters said it was very important that a candidate share their religious beliefs.

Evangelicals preferred Santorum over Romney, 40 percent to 19 percent, according to a Vanderbilt University poll taken last week. In addition, one-fifth of Tennessee voters polled said they considered Mormonism a “cult.’’

That perception, and Romney’s wealth and history of governing a relatively liberal state, have always put Romney at a disadvantage in the South, said Merle Black, a scholar of Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

“None of that helps,’’ Black said. “But it’s not just that. It’s the issues he was associated with as governor of Massachusetts: those are not issues you win a governorship in the South with. No one would be bragging about putting in a mandatory health system. So, in a lot of ways, you have to run away from your record.’’

Taunting Romney on a campaign swing through Tennessee on Monday, Gingrich said: “Either he’ll figure out how to win the South, or he won’t be the nominee.’’

Romney’s campaign sought to put the best face on the result in Tennessee, pointing out that he cut quickly and deeply into Santorum’s lead there and will get a share of the state’s 58 delegates.

“Win or lose, he’s going to take a significant number of delegates and his ability to close the gap in such a short time demonstrates that Mitt can play in the South, and it also helps to overcome this perception that there’s an evangelical barrier here in the South,’’ said William F. Hagerty IV, a Romney adviser in Tennessee who has known Romney since they were colleagues at the Boston Consulting Group.

“It really shows he’s going to play strongly in the South,’’ Hagerty said.

Santorum actively courted the state’s Christian conservatives.

On Sunday, he attended services at a Southern Baptist megachurch in Cordova, Tenn., where the pastor, Steve Gaines, invited the former Pennsylvania senator on stage and asked for God’s forgiveness for racism, abortion, and “sins of immorality.’’

“We didn’t pray that he would win,’’ Gaines, the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church, told the congregation, according to the Associated Press. “We just prayed that God’s will be done.’’

About 150,000 early ballots were cast in Tennessee, with most flooding in days ago, when Santorum held a commanding lead in the polls, Saltsman said. Given that early advantage for Santorum, Romney “made up a lot of ground up here,’’ Saltsman said. “It was an uphill climb.’’

With his victory in Georgia last night, Gingrich can now seize on a reason to stay in the race.

The former House speaker, who had not won a primary since his upset victory in South Carolina on Jan. 21, had said he needed to win the state he represented in Congress for 20 years to remain a credible contender for the nomination.

Exit polls showed he won every type of voter in Georgia except those who said strong moral character was most important. Gingrich has said he will now look to Mississippi and Alabama for another lift.

“If Gingrich has any chance for a rebound, it’s going to be in this region,’’ said Charles S. Bullock III, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

But unless he wins outside the South, he risks being marginalized as a candidate with purely regional appeal.

Romney will try to improve his Southern fortunes by heading to Mississippi on Friday, according to Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader from that state, who is helping Romney.

“We’re going to do very well in Mississippi, but it’s pretty tough in the South, being the governor of Massachusetts,’’ Lott said.

Mississippi is the “most prolife state,’’ in the country, Lott said, and its voters are ardently conservative, “but I think we’ve done a pretty good job convincing Mississippians that he is a conservative.’’

Romney did score a Southern victory in Virginia, which has 46 delegates.

But its symbolic value was diminished because Ron Paul was the only other candidate on the ballot.

Oklahoma, with 43 delegates, voted for Santorum, but the state was not aggressively contested by any of the candidates.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.
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