JUDY WOODRUFF: And once again to the Republican presidential race, as the candidates sprinted toward a pair of key nominating contests in the South tomorrow.
The Republican race had a decidedly Southern flavor today, with Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich all campaigning in Alabama or Mississippi.
On “FOX and Friends” this morning, Romney said, regardless of what happens there Tuesday, he is ultimately going to beat Santorum, his nearest rival.
MITT ROMNEY (R): Oh, we’re closing the deal state by state, delegate by delegate, I guess two, two-and-a-half times as many delegates as he has, about the same number of state advantages that he has, many more Republican voters than he has. And, by the way, we’re pretty pleased with the progress we’re making.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, late polling suggested Santorum and Gingrich might split the more conservative vote tomorrow and create an opening for Romney.
With that in mind, the former Massachusetts governor campaigned in rainy Mobile, Ala., today, winning the endorsement of comedian Jeff Foxworthy.
Meanwhile, on NBC’s “Today Show,” Rick Santorum was doing his own calculation and insisting that Romney won’t win if the contest goes to the Republican Convention.
RICK SANTORUM (R): They are not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who has been outspending his opponent 10-1 and can’t win the election outright. What chance do we have in a general election if he can’t, with an overwhelming money advantage, be able to deliver any kind of knockout blow to other candidates?
JUDY WOODRUFF: Santorum did beat Romney on Saturday for a win in the Kansas caucuses. But Romney won in Wyoming and did well enough in Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Marianas to win the most delegates of the day.
Back in the South, Newt Gingrich focused on President Obama and gas prices.
Today, at a Gulf Coast energy summit in Biloxi, Miss.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): The president is trapped, because, on the one hand, he really does believe in a green energy, high technology, very expensive energy, get away from all fossil fuels theory of life. On the other hand, he is faced with Americans who drive trucks and cars which rely on fossil fuels.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as gas prices keep rising, a new ABC-Washington Post poll showed the president’s approval dipping below 50 percent again.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney played down the findings.
JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: The president, the administration is not focused on polling data. We are obviously aware that Americans are paying a very high price when they fill up their gas tanks. And the president is focused on that and concerned about it and understands the kind of impact that has on hardworking American families who are trying to make ends meet.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The rising price of gas increasingly shapes up as an issue this fall, but, for now, the Republican hopefuls were mainly focused on the voting tomorrow in Alabama and Mississippi, with 90 delegates at stake.
For more on tomorrow’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, we are joined by Steve Flowers, a syndicated political columnist and host of “Alabama Politics.” He also served 16 years as a Republican in the Alabama House of Representatives. And Sid Salter, he’s a journalist in residence at Mississippi State University.
Thanks to you both.
Steve Flowers, I’m going to start with you because Alabama, with 50 delegates, has 10 more than Mississippi.
Tell us what the contest looks like in Alabama right now.
STEVE FLOWERS, “Alabama Politics”: Well, we’re in a dead heat.
All candidates coming out on the weekend in tracking polls had them about 30 percent each. So we may be one of the tightest races in the country.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are the candidates, Steve Flowers, what is their main message to the voters in your state?
STEVE FLOWERS: Looks like the evangelical fundamentals have gravitated to Santorum, because he’s the most conservative on the social issues.
And Gingrich is probably benefiting from the fact that he is a Georgia candidate. The South has a more pronounced friends-and-neighbors politics, if you will, than the rest of the country. The fact that Gingrich is from Georgia is benefiting him and putting him in the race, where he probably wouldn’t be otherwise.
As a matter of fact, the last person to carry Alabama as a Democrat was Jimmy Carter in 1976. And he was a devout Southern Baptist peanut farmer from South Georgia. And he very narrowly carried the state. And then Romney is probably getting the mainstream voter, probably the person who thinks that Romney is the better candidate to beat Obama.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Sid Salter, what about in Mississippi? Is Gingrich advantaged because of the time he spent in the South?
SID SALTER, Mississippi State University: I think the biggest advantage that Gingrich has right now is he’s hit on a very populist issue in the $2.50 gas.
That said, it appears to me, much as is in Alabama, that the takeaway is shaping up for the Mississippi primary that Mitt Romney is doing and will do much better here on Tuesday than forecast by virtually anyone.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And why — why do you think that is?
SID SALTER: Well, number one, there’s been sort of a carpet-bombing of robocalls, of paid media. I mean, they have spent a lot of money.
They have also had organizational skills brought to them by Austin Barbour, the nephew of Haley Barbour, that name still political gold in a lot of areas of Mississippi. And the other thing that I think is that people in Iowa and New Hampshire are used to this kind of attention. Mississippi has been traditionally a tarmac state, where candidates hold a press conference on the airport tarmac, and then get back on the plane and leave.
This time, they’re getting a lot of attention. And it’s generating a significant amount of interest.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Steve Flowers, if that’s — if it’s the same way in Alabama, does that mean people are more interested and more of them are likely to turn out and vote tomorrow?
STEVE FLOWERS: Yes, I think so.
I think the presidential race is the first time we’ve had any relevance in the presidential race. As the gentleman from Mississippi mentioned, we are forgotten in the general election because it’s a foregone conclusion that whoever the Republican nominee is will carry our states.
So this is the first time, because of the prolonged Republican race, that we have had any candidates come to our state. And they are crisscrossing the state. And there’re signs, there are billboards, there are television ads. And most of the ads are negative.
But they seem to be trending and I agree with the guy from Mississippi that Romney may surprise folks tomorrow, because the momentum may be with him.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re talking about Alabama?
STEVE FLOWERS: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Sid Salter, back to you.
Tell us who the Republican voters are in the state of Mississippi. Tell us a little bit about them.
SID SALTER: Well, primarily, you’re looking at voters who define themselves as anti-abortion, pro-gun, primarily pro-business, evangelical, all of the hot buttons that one would traditionally associate with conservative and primarily Republican voters in the South.
But you’re seeing this time Romney’s sheen of growing inevitability begin to shine through some of those evangelical concerns. And I think that’s the reason that much is — is happening in Alabama. We have almost got an even split now, with Ron Paul picking up a negligible amount of the vote, and Romney, Santorum and Gingrich getting to a point — and if anybody six months ago said Mitt Romney would get a strong second in Mississippi, they would have had their head examined.
That’s very much what is trending right now.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Flowers, back to you in Alabama.
Is that a factor in your state as well, that Republicans are looking at Mitt Romney and seeing maybe he’s going to be the one and that’s who I want to be with, regardless of whether I may share more values with the other two?
STEVE FLOWERS: I think definitely so.
You know, Alabama has had — it’s assumed that we in the South are different. And we are, because we’re more conservative. However, throughout the course of the entire campaign, whoever was hot, the flavor of the month, was hot in Alabama.
Michele Bachmann was hot, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, and then Santorum. And it seems as though we are trending like the national trend, although we have more evangelical voters than the rest of the country. I think that what you’re seeing is, is that a lot of Republican voters, not only in Alabama and maybe Mississippi, but also nationwide, are trying to ascertain who is the best candidate to beat Obama.
There’s a fervor among conservatives in Alabama and throughout the country, I feel, to defeat President Obama. And they’re voting for Romney in deference to whatever — they may like him or not. They feel like he is the best candidate against — against Obama.
And, matter of fact, some of the negative ads that I saw over the weekend indicated that Gingrich may be drawing from the same well that Romney is. You know, Gingrich did very well in the debates. And so for a lot of people watching those debates and — and gravitated to Gingrich in that regard.
So, I saw a lot of negative ads that Romney was running against Gingrich. He may perceive that Gingrich is getting that same voter who is saying, we want to beat Obama at all costs.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, finally back to you, Sid Salter.
Where does that leave Santorum and his appeal?
SID SALTER: Santorum really needs the win, in my opinion, in Mississippi and Alabama far more than Gingrich. Gingrich has said he’s in regardless. Santorum hasn’t yet made that claim. He needs the win.
And I think his performance against Romney particularly is disappointing to him and to his supporters.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there, gentlemen. We thank you both.
Sid Salter in Mississippi, Steve Flowers in Alabama, we appreciate it.