By Julie Pace/The Associated Press
JACKSON— Eager to connect with Southern voters, Mitt Romney burnished his business credentials — and his new-found love for cheesy grits — as he sought support for his Republican presidential campaign in a region that presents significant challenges for the former Massachusetts governor.
Romney greeted the crowd at a town hall meeting Friday with a hearty “Morning, y’all!”
“I got started right this morning with a biscuit and some cheesy grits,” he said. “Delicious!”
With voters in Mississippi, as well as Alabama, headed to the polls on Tuesday, Romney is battling against his perceived weaknesses in the Deep South. He focused heavily on his private sector background while answering voters’ questions, and sought to cast himself as the Republican candidate best-suited to tackle the nation’s economic problems.
“In business, you have to be a fiscal conservative. If not, you go out of business,” Romney said.
Romney spoke as the latest jobs numbers showed the economy added 227,000 jobs in February, though the unemployment rate was unchanged at 8.3 percent, largely because more people streamed into the work force.
Romney did not directly address the fresh economic data, but he criticized President Barack Obama for failing to bring the unemployment rate back below 8 percent.
The GOP front-runner also faced a question about who he would pick as vice president. He side-stepped the inquiry, saying only that the party has excellent governors, senators and former leaders and that he would pick a running mate who has the capacity to serve as president.
Romney holds a solid lead in the race for delegates to the party’s summer convention as the primary race turns to the South. While Romney’s campaign says the delegate math makes it almost impossible for his rivals to catch up, both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich see the Southern states as an opportunity to make up ground in the race.
One of Romney’s top surrogates in Mississippi said that while the former Massachusetts governor may be an underdog in Tuesday’s primary, his campaign infrastructure in the state gives him the opportunity for a strong showing.
“We are the most organized campaign in Mississippi,” said Austin Barbour, a national chairman for Romney’s campaign. “We’re an underdog in Mississippi, but we’re a fighting underdog.”