Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Gop Primary Highlights Less Predictable Southern Electorate

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Gop Primary Highlights Less Predictable Southern Electorate

Article excerpt

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- They stood beneath a Saturn V rocket, baby- carrying mothers, cross-armed men, financial planners and workers in coveralls, listening as Rick Santorum told them who they were and why they mattered.

"Red Alabama," he said to the crowd at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. "Conservative Alabama. The heart of conservatism."

Along with his rivals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, Mr. Santorum is pressing hard in this state and in Mississippi ahead of a vote Tuesday that could narrow the field in the Republican presidential nominating contest or help prolong it into the coming weeks and months. But a victory is more than just about delegates -- it will give the winner a claim on the Deep South, or as Mr. Santorum described it, the heart of conservatism.

But the Deep South base is not as predictable as it once was. National polling companies have found a volatile contest in Alabama and Mississippi, a near toss-up among the three leading candidates. And indeed the primaries represent a rather neat slicing of the Southern electorate at the current moment.

"The base is split all over the place on this," said Mike Ball, a Republican state legislator in Alabama.

Is this fertile ground for Mr. Santorum, whose commanding victory in Tennessee last week was largely attributable to evangelical voters? Or are Alabama and Mississippi voters more like those in South Carolina, who relished Mr. Gingrich's fire-breathing rhetoric?

Or will voters, particularly evangelicals, do what may have been unthinkable just years ago and support a Mormon from a northeastern state who sells his corporatist approach to fixing the economy and claims he is the most electable? Mr. Romney's promising poll numbers should not come as a shock in the South of today, Mr. Ball said.

"Southern politics has really shifted," he said, pointing out the electoral success of governors like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who ran on a platform of technocratic competence, and Bill Haslam of Tennessee, a moderate.

Nobody taps into the old fighting strain of Southern politics like Mr. Gingrich, who styles himself as an intellectual brawler who can outsmart the know-it-alls in Washington. If the primary had been held a month ago, Mr. Gingrich would probably have won in a walk, and even those who are leaning away from supporting him are not quite ready to let go completely.

"In the back of your mind you know what's coming," said Chandler Castle, a 32-year-old from Meridian who works in construction. "But," he added wistfully, as if speaking of an aging prize fighter, "I just want to see Newt and [President Barack] Obama in a debate."

Mr. Castle, waiting two blocks away for what would be a trademark Gingrich tub-thumping speech, said the people in his circles were mostly undecided, though nobody liked Mr. …

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