KNOXVILLE, TN-- Mitt Romney took a daylong break from a marathon Ohio campaign swing to make two appearances in southern states his own campaign advisers admit he's unlikely to win, for one simple reason: He's hunting Super Tuesday delegates.
Romney made quick stops in an Atlanta suburb and in Knoxville, Tennessee today -- strategically selected locations in states Romney advisers say he is unlikely to carry, but where the campaign sees delegate pickup opportunities.
"I don't know if we have any realistic expectation of beating Newt Gingrich in his home state," Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters traveling with the candidate today. "But we look to taking some delegates out. Same thing in Tennessee."
In Georgia, Romney's team has targeted downtown and suburban Atlanta districts, where Romney performed well four years ago, with one senior adviser comparing the demographics of suburban Atlanta to those of Oakland County -- Romney's home county in Michigan -- which he won with fully fifty percent of the vote last week.
Today in Snellville, east of Atlanta, Romney drew an overflow crowd for a pancake brunch that morphed into a town hall. He told voters in the overflow room he felt good about his fifth-straight victory in Washington state Saturday, and later gamely passed out breakfast to voters -- never serving up more than subtle criticism of his republican rivals, and focusing his ire on President Obama.
In Tennessee, Romney has relied on deep bench of establishment support, including a clutch of congressmen, Senator Lamar Alexander and Governor Bill Haslem, to buoy his campaign's efforts. Former Senator Rick Santorum, now widely considered to be Romney's chief rival for the nomination also failed to get on the ballot in some Tennessee districts, further opening the door for Romney to slip away with southern delegates.
Today's campaign event in Knoxville was his first public event in the state this cycle. Introduced by Haslem, Romney was in a confident mood, congratulating the state's famous basketball team, the Lady Vols, and reminiscing about the Davy Crockett theme song from his boyhood.
Romney's confidence pervaded campaign staff, with Fehrnstrom describing the candidate as "thrilled" by the Washington state victory, and brandishing statistics about the New Hampshire and Florida contests to fend off the narrative.
"If you look at New Hampshire, Mitt Romney won by a bigger percentage than Ronald Reagan, and I don’t remember anybody saying Ronald Reagan had a problem connecting with people," Fehrnstrom said. "You look at Florida; Mitt Romney got more votes than any Republican ever in a presidential primary."
But even as the campaign works to highlight the importance of winning delegates, Fehrnstrom told reporters that in the end, the way to silence Romney's critics who say he cannot connect would be simple: win.
"We’re just going to keep focusing on racking up wins, and I think that answers the question," Fehrnstrom said.