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Foxworthy (left) and Romney (AP/Photo by John David Mercer)

Southern showdown

Politics | Stakes are high for Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich in Tuesday's primaries in Alabama and Mississippi

What can a Harvard educated, former Republican governor of liberal-leaning Massachusetts do to whip up support for his presidential aspirations in the ultraconservative Deep South?

He can bring with him on the campaign trail comedian Jeff "You might be a redneck if …" Foxworthy.

That is exactly what Mitt Romney did on Monday, campaigning with Foxworthy ahead of Tuesday's deadlocked Alabama and Mississippi primaries.

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In dire need of a win in the South in a state not named Florida, Romney has been trying to connect with voters by talking about eating "cheesy grits" and going hunting. He described as "pretty tasty" but "a bit fattening" a supper he ate in Jackson, Miss., that included fried catfish, hush puppies, and fried pickles.

Romney told Foxworthy that he was looking forward to going hunting with him because "You can actually show me which end of the rifle to point."

Yes, Romney, who turned 65 on Monday, told the voters in the two states that he was becoming an "unofficial Southerner."

"I'm learning to say 'y'all' and I like grits," he said. "Strange things are happening to me."

What Romney really hopes will happen is that his attempts at Southern charm will translate into votes in a region where votes have been hard to come by for the current GOP frontrunner. While he can conceivably win the Republican nomination without a victory in the South, Romney needs to show that he can energize voters in a region that is home to many of the nation's most ardent conservatives. That includes many social conservatives and evangelical voters who largely have been slow to support him.

Four years ago, 77 percent of GOP primary voters in Alabama and 69 percent in Mississippi described themselves as evangelicals. In last week's Ohio primary, Romney picked up only 30 percent of the evangelical vote. A strong finish for him in Alabama or Mississippi could strengthen his position as frontrunner, but it likely will not come without more support from evangelical voters in both states.

Tuesday's stakes also are high for Romney's rivals. Polls show that Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich all have chances of winning one or both of the two states. That is why Romney was not alone in his use of celebrities: Some Alabama voters received a recorded phone message from Chuck Norris in support of Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich has banked his now struggling campaign on winning in the South. The former House speaker, who has primary victories in Georgia and South Carolina, will face increased pressure to drop out of the race if he performs poorly on Tuesday.

He spent the weekend attacking President Obama and Romney. But Gingrich also talked openly about his past marital infidelities.

"There were things in my life that I have been very public about saying were, in fact, well short of the glory of God, and I had to go to God to seek forgiveness," he said at the First Baptist Church in Brandon. Miss. Gingrich had an affair with his current wife, Callista, while married to his second wife. "I don't come to you as a person who is perfect. I come to you as a citizen who has sought redemption and has sought God's love and recognizes that you have to shelter under the cross to have any hope of living a full life."

Meanwhile, Santorum, fresh off his win in the Kansas caucus over the weekend, continues to make the argument that he is the best conservative alternative to both Romney and Obama.

"If we win Alabama, a conservative will be nominated by the Republican Party. And if we nominate a conservative, we will defeat Barack Obama in the general election," he said Monday night in Montgomery, Ala.

But Gingrich and Santorum continue to split the anti-Romney vote. If united under one candidate, the voting block slow to warm to Romney would pose serious challenges to his frontrunner status. In Ohio last week, Romney beat Santorum by less than a percentage point. Gingrich finished a distant third with 14 percent of the vote. But, if most of those 175,500 voters had sided with Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania could have easily made up his 10,000-vote margin of defeat.

Santorum has spent the last few days pushing for a two-person race.

"I think the better opportunity to make sure that we nominate a conservative is to give us an opportunity to go head-to-head with Gov. Romney at some point and hopefully that will occur sooner rather than later," he said.

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