Will love of 'cheesy grits' help Mitt Romney win the Deep South?

WASHINGTON - One swears he loves grits. Another has spoken of the importance of having a gun rack on the roof of his car. Yet another says only he truly shares their evangelical beliefs.

Voters in Alabama and Mississippi headed to the polls on Tuesday in the latest nominating contests in the bruising Republican presidential race after watching the party's candidates contort themselves for weeks to prove they have uniquely southern sensibilities.

Eighty-four delegates are at stake in the southern contests that have taken on a special significance as front-runner Mitt Romney struggles to decisively win over the party's stratified base of voters. Hawaii and American Samoa are also holding Republican caucuses on Tuesday.

But it's the results in the Deep South that could help redefine the race in the weeks to come.

Both Newt Gingrich, the Pennsylvania-born former congressman who presents himself as a native son after representing the state of Georgia for two decades, and Rick Santorum, a staunch social conservative, need big wins.

If they perform badly on Tuesday night, calls will intensify for them to drop out. Santorum's campaign reiterated its plea for Gingrich to exit the race on Tuesday.

"People of Mississippi and Alabama want a conservative," Santorum told reporters in Biloxi, Miss.

"If they want a conservative nominee for sure, they can do that by lining up behind us and making this race clearly a two-person race outside of the South."

Romney, on the other hand, has said he doesn't need to win big in both states to remain in the race. But he also pointed out on Tuesday that the South's evangelical and socially conservative voters have told pollsters he's the one who could beat U.S. President Barack Obama in November.

"John McCain didn't win either of these states, Alabama or Mississippi," he told Fox News. "We are delighted that we are doing so well there. The polls are suggesting it is kind of a three-way tie."

He added: "The other guys are nice folks, but they have not organized a campaign with a staff, the organization, the fund-raising capacity to actually beat Barack Obama. I have."

In recent days, Santorum has played down his chances of winning, even though he once insisted Romney couldn't win support from evangelicals, now a key faction of the party's base.

"If the opportunity provides itself in an open convention, they're not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor who has been outspending his opponent 10-1 and can't win the election outright," Santorum said as he campaigned in Alabama and Mississippi.

But a tally by The Associated Press shows Romney with 454 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination, Santorum with 217, Gingrich with 107 and Ron Paul with 47. The more delegates amassed by Romney, the more daunting the task for the three other candidates to catch up, meaning he's likely on pace to secure the nomination before the party's convention in August.

Attempts by Gingrich and Romney, in particular, to appeal to southern voters have been comical at times.

Romney, the buttoned-down, Harvard-educated Mormon millionaire, has taken to using the term "y'all" when greeting crowds. He spoke of his penchant for "cheesy grits." And he brought comedian Jeff Foxworthy on stage to endorse him; Foxworthy's trademark comedy routine begins: "You might be a redneck if. ..."

Two weeks ago, Romney found himself in hot water for boasting of being pals with people who own NASCAR teams; NASCAR racing is hugely popular in the South.

But the former Massachusetts governor has also poked fun at himself and his ignorance of the past-times many southerners hold dear, mentioning he hoped to go hunting with a friend from Alabama who "can actually show me which end of the rifle to point." He got big laughs.

Gingrich, meantime — the man who has compared himself to Charles DeGaulle and has lived in the posh D.C.-area enclave of McLean, Va. for years — donned a bass-fishing shirt at a recent event and punctuated his normally professorial remarks with a few "ain'ts."

"What a crowd; I am really impressed," Gingrich added in Dothan, Alabama. "There must be nobody left at Walmart this afternoon."

The Walmart quip is a common expression in the South to suggest something big is happening elsewhere.

Gingrich has also been running an Alabama robocall narrated by martial artist and actor Chuck Norris that touts TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline.

"As president, Newt will repeal Obamacare, get rid of Obama's czars, and use common-sense measures, like building the Keystone pipeline to lower the cost of gas to two and half dollars a gallon," says Norris.

In an earlier speech in the South, Gingrich mocked Chevrolet's electric car, calling the Volt "an Obama car" and saying you couldn't strap a gun rack on its roof. Chevy corrected him.

Libertarian congressman Ron Paul, meantime, has argued that slavery was not the primary cause of the Civil War in an online video apparently aimed at appealing to southerners.

And Santorum has been heard droppin' his G's as he's addressin' his cheerin' supporters.

"Goldarnit, it's National Talk Lack a Southerner Day," wrote Linton Weeks on the North Country Public Radio website of the candidates' attempts to ingratiate themselves to southerners.

The Southern showdown dawned as new polls suggest Obama's approval ratings are plummeting as gas prices soar and tensions in the Middle East flare.

A Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 46 per cent approve of Obama's job performance, while 50 per cent disapprove. A New York Times-CBS poll found 41 per cent approve while 47 per cent disapprove.