In Mississippi, conservatives ask: Who can beat Obama?

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — As Mississippi prepares for its Republican presidential primary Tuesday, many conservatives say they’re looking for one thing: A nominee who can defeat President Barack Obama in November.

Three top Republican presidential candidates are campaigning steadily in Mississippi and neighboring Alabama, which also holds its primary Tuesday.

Mississippi has 40 Republican delegates. Three are party officials, and two of those are already committed to Romney while one remains undecided. Thirty-seven delegates will be awarded Tuesday, but it probably won’t be winner-take-all.

If no candidate wins a majority, 25 delegates statewide are awarded proportionally. The other 12 are awarded by congressional district — three from each of the four districts.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who’s endorsed by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and several other Republican state officials, spoke to several hundred people Friday at the farmers market on the state fairgrounds in Jackson. He criticized Obama on health care and the size of government, saying the Democrat is trying to turn the U.S. into something resembling a European social democratic nation.

“We have got to slay the government beast if we’re going to have more jobs and a better future,” Romney said, with a large American flag and a green John Deere tractor as a backdrop.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is hoping for a show of strength in a Deep South state. He represented Georgia for 20 years but now lives in Virginia. Before a somewhat subdued audience of roughly 200 Thursday at the Hilton hotel in north Jackson, Gingrich spoke about oil production and gasoline prices, saying the Obama administration is anti-energy.

“Our only opponent is Barack Obama, and we are committed to removing him from the White House,” Gingrich said.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is appealing to Christian conservatives. He won applause during a Wednesday rally at Jackson’s Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum when he said the nation’s founders recognized that rights are God-given.

“America has a purposeful freedom, a freedom to build something precious for you, for your family, for your neighbor, for your community, for your church, for your God,” Santorum said. “That’s what America is about.”

State Democratic Party director Rickey Cole said with Republicans making multiple appearances in Mississippi before Tuesday, “it feels like the circus has come to town.”

He said he’s confident Obama can win re-election, even if the president doesn’t prevail in Mississippi, a state that has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980.

“I think the extreme positions that these Republican candidates are having, are going to make them unelectable in the fall,” Cole said.

Adam and Debbie Browne of Jackson took their four children, ages 1 to 12, to the ag museum to see Santorum, the man they hope will be the next president. Adam is an engineer and Debbie home-schools their older children.

“He really represents our values and what we’re looking for,” said Adam Browne, 38. “We feel like he’s been very consistently pro-life. We feel like he has been a good representative on the economic side, too.”

Randy May of Terry, who wore a Tea Party Rangers shirt to the Santorum rally in Jackson, said he likes both Santorum and Gingrich, though he believes Gingrich will be a stronger debater against Obama.

“Newt — he’s the most qualified that’s ever run,” May said. At 63, he is mostly retired after 35 years of shoeing horses.

May said he believes labor unions and the Obama health care plan are ruining the country. He said this presidential election is one of the most important in a long time because he wants Obama out of the White House. May said he stayed away from voting for most of his adult life.

“Only guy I had ever voted for was Jimmy Carter, so I figured I wasn’t any good at it,” he deadpanned.

Jennifer Skipper, 34, a lawyer who lives in Madison, said she plans to vote for Romney. She believes he has a strong record on economic issues and thinks he’ll appeal to a broad range of voters in November. Skipper said she wants a president who will support policies that will help all types of families be self-sufficient.

In choosing among the Republican primary candidates, Skipper said the deciding factor is “how much I feel, personally, they can beat Barack Obama. I certainly don’t want to put up a candidate who’s going to lose.”

Bob Hardin, 64, of Jackson, who works in commercial mortgages and investments, attended the Romney rally at the farmers market. He said he probably will vote for Romney because he sees Romney as a successful businessman with strong executive leadership qualities.

Hardin said he has no qualms about Romney, but he thinks others might.

“A broad spectrum of blue-collar Americans may resent his financial success,” Hardin said.

Hardin said he’s not optimistic about Republicans’ chances of defeating an incumbent president, and he believes the party should concentrate its resources on winning control of the U.S. Senate.

“You’re not going to beat Obama this year,” Hardin said. “Nobody is.”