By Steve Holland
JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is laying it on as thick as a syrupy Southern drawl as he tries to court the South, a region that has been unkind to him in the past and may soon turn its back on him again.
"Morning, y'all," Romney told a campaign rally on Friday in Jackson, Mississippi. "I got started this morning right with a biscuit and some cheesy grits," he joked.
The former Massachusetts governor is admittedly the underdog in Mississippi and Alabama, two stalwarts of the Old South where Republicans vote in primaries on Tuesday to decide which candidate they think should challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
Romney thus far has been unable to make a breakthrough in the heart of Republican conservatism. Despite a huge effort, he was trounced by Newt Gingrich in South Carolina in January. He came in second on Tuesday to Gingrich in Georgia and lost Tennessee to chief rival Rick Santorum.
The only southern states he has won are Virginia, where Texas Congressman Ron Paul was only other candidate on the ballot, and Florida where his campaign outspent rivals on ads.
"I realize it's a bit of an away game," Romney told Birmingham radio state WAPI on Thursday, referring to his chances in the South.
His troubles in the South reflect lingering suspicions about the depth of his conservative views. As a former governor of a heavily Democratic state he is seen as more of a moderate.
His Mormon faith is also seen as a factor in the Bible Belt.
"I think religion should have no part in today's politics, but it does," said Cheryl Patton, who attended Romney's Jackson event and said she likes Romney's business experience and family values. "He seems mellow and kind."
Bob Hardin, also at the Jackson event, thinks Romney is the best Republican to take the fight against Obama, but believes his vast wealth may also be a factor.
"Unfortunately he carries with him the baggage of success, which doesn't resonate with a large part of the public today. As a free market capitalist, I don't think it should, but it does," he said.
LIKELY TO LOSE PRIMARIES
Romney has struggled to connect with everyday Americans throughout his 2012 campaign. Thus his "I like grits" comment was intended to ingratiate himself with the back-slapping South, where biscuits and grits are a breakfast staple.
As Romney campaigns this week in Mississippi and Alabama, he and his advisers are under no illusions that he could win here, but would love to be surprised.
Polls published on Friday show that might be possible.
A Rasmussen poll of 750 likely Republican primary voters in Alabama showed Gingrich leading with 30 percent, but he was virtually tied with Santorum at 29 percent and Romney at 28 percent. With a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points, any of them could win.
Two polls in Mississippi had divergent results. An American Research Group poll of 600 likely Republican voters had Gingrich in the lead with 35 percent, followed by Romney at 31 percent and Santorum with 20 percent. A Rasmussen poll of 750 likely Republican voters put Romney ahead with 35 percent while Santorum and Gingrich each had 27 percent. Both polls had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
The Romney camp's main southern goal is to get a good enough finish to pick up some of the 1,144 delegates needed for the Republican nomination.
"We are successfully executing against our plan, even when we don't come in first," said senior Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom.
In fact Romney is engaged in a war of attrition with his rivals, less concerned about winning states and more intent on winning delegates.
He has more than 400 delegates now, a total that is double his nearest competitor, Santorum.
"We're not going to win either Alabama or Mississippi," said a senior Romney adviser. "But we'll pick up delegates in both places."
The Romney campaign is happy to watch Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, and former House of Representatives Speaker Gingrich, who represented a Georgia district, fight it out in the South.
Romney is steering clear of a Monday candidates' forum in Birmingham that both Santorum and Gingrich plan to attend.
"Romney just needs to stand aside and let Santorum and Gingrich beat each other up," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
An encouraging sign for Romney was the endorsement of his campaign by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, yet another signal that the party establishment is warming to the idea of Romney as the ultimate nominee.
Phil Neville, who attended the Jackson event, said the size of the crowd jammed into a building at the Mississippi Farmers' Market suggested to him the opinion of Romney is changing.
"I think this crowd is evidence that people feel the most important is to beat Obama," said Neville. "Whatever faults Romney may have that people complain about, they all want the man with the best chance to beat Obama, and that person is Romney."
Romney's forces are pouring resources into the two states to try to raise questions about Santorum, whose victories in Tennessee and Oklahoma on March 6 "Super Tuesday" have solidified his status as the main conservative alternative to Romney.
Restore our Future, the Super PAC supporting Romney, has been on the air in Alabama and Mississippi with anti-Santorum ads for days, spending nearly $3 million.
Romney is driving home his message that he would focus on job creation, cutting government red tape, reducing deficits and overhauling sacrosanct entitlement programs for the poor and elderly to try to restore America's economic might.
"We have to have a fundamental restructuring of our government, which is to take out the scale and power of the federal government and return it to the people and the states," he said in Jackson.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres said the South wants to hear how the economy will rebound just as much as the rest of the country.
"The message of job creation and fiscal responsibility will play extremely well. The South is hurting every bit as much as the rest of the country with this anemic recovery and Southern states tend to be fiscally responsible states," he said.
Romney's message is more crisp than during his campaign in South Carolina, where his work as a private equity executive for Bain Capital became a distraction, along with his refusal to release his tax records. He later released his tax records and his work for Bain has faded as an issue.
Romney has been full of facts and figures about his proposals for a 20 percent cut in income taxes across the board, deficit reduction and entitlement overhaul. But he has not explained in plain English how these changes would relate to the average American.
"Romney needs to make sure that people understand clearly how his economic plan, cutting taxes, shrinking government and entitlement reform, impacts businesses large and small," said Jim Dyke, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist.
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)