PASCAGOULA, Miss. – Campaigning for the first time since a string of Super Tuesday victories extended his delegate lead but failed to put the Republican nominating contest in the bag, Mitt Romney on Thursday evening secured yet another major endorsement, with a side of grits.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant announced his support for Romney in brief remarks at the port here, before attention turned to another Mississippian, Romney's body-man Garrett Jackson, whom the former Massachusetts governor credits with beginning his transition into an "unofficial southerner."
"I am learning to say y'all and I like grits, and ... strange things are happening to me," Romney joked with the crowd.
Romney's embrace of southern staples couldn't have come at a more opportune time, as the race for the GOP nomination now turns to a geographic region likely to be less fertile turf for Romney than the West and industrial Midwest have been in previous weeks, with nominating contests in Mississippi, Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, and Louisiana to come before the end of the March.
Senior Romney aides have acknowledged to reporters that Romney is unlikely to break through with a win in the culturally southern state, but argued that even second place finishes could net the frontrunner significant delegates in the race to the 1,144 needed to secure the nomination.
"There are other candidates that are going to win some more races, but we're going to be consistently coming in second place, and getting delegates in a lot of these states," the Romney aide said, pointing to Tennessee as a recent example.
In his appearance tonight, Romney spoke like a frontrunner – never mentioning his Republican rivals, and keeping his focus on President Barack Obama. Standing in front of massive deep-water drilling rigs, Romney hit the president for the rise in gas prices during his term, a kitchen-table issue likely to resonate in a state where the energy industry takes on outsize importance and where the median income is nearly $15,000 below the national average.
"Since this president has been president, the cost of gas has doubled," Romney said. "Not exactly what he might have hoped for, and he says, ‘Well it’s not my fault.’ By the way, we've gone from yes we can to, ‘It’s not my fault.’ You notice – a new campaign slogan. 'It’s not my fault.' Well this is, in part, his fault."
To win here, Romney will need more than just his economic message to sink in: He'll need to win over voters both unfamiliar with his record and potentially distrustful of his faith.
In neighboring Tennessee, with similar demographics, Romney fell to Rick Santorum by nine points, losing by 19 points among born-again Christians and by 35 points to those who said a candidate sharing their religious beliefs mattered very much.
Bryant told reporters after the event that Romney's biggest handicap here would be that "people don't know him" in a state where he doesn't have the benefit of having campaigned before, and predicted only that the state would be "close" in the end.
Already, an air campaign is underway to educate voters in the south about Romney's record – and those of his opponents.
Pro-Romney Super PAC, Restore our Future, has spent nearly $7 million dollars on ads in the south in February and March, with three separate ads in rotation in Mississippi and Alabama alone since Feb. 14th. A Romney aide told NBC news the campaign began airing ads in Alabama, but not Mississippi, on Thursday.
NBC's Jamie Novogrod contributed reporting from Boston.