USA-CAMPAIGN-POLL:Poll shows Romney in the race in Mississippi, Alabama
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new poll on Monday showed Mitt Romney is surprisingly strong in two Republican presidential primary contests in the South this week that are crucial to his conservative rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
A Public Policy Polling poll found a tight race in both states. Newt Gingrich is up in Mississippi with 33 percent, to Romney's 31 percent. Rick Santorum had 27 percent and Ron Paul 7 percent in the race to become the Republican challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
In Alabama, the race is narrow as well, with Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, at 31 percent, Gingrich at 30 percent, Santorum at 29 percent and Paul, a U.S. congressman from Texas, at 8 percent.
"About all we know for sure about Tuesday's primaries is that Ron Paul will finish last in them," said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. "Beyond that it's plausible that any of the candidates could finish between first and third in both Alabama and Mississippi."
Hoping to capitalize on uncertainty among conservatives on whether to vote for Santorum or Gingrich, Romney held a rain-soaked rally in Mobile, Alabama to try to drum up support and walk away on Tuesday with either a victory or two to add to his big lead in delegates needed for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney, who was doing a blitz of radio interviews in Alabama and Mississippi, has more than 400 delegates of the 1,144 total needed, far more than Santorum.
"If you were to give me your support, that will ... give me more delegates, and by the way we're about two and a half times ahead in the delegate race, so we're doing real well," Romney said at the Whistle Stop diner in Mobile. "I need more delegates. So if you guys are able to do that for me we could well take this over the top at a very fast pace."
CATFISH AND A COMEDIAN
Romney, who is held in suspicion by many conservatives, tried to relate to southerners, saying he ate catfish in Mississippi on Sunday night for the second time in his life and hoped to go hunting with southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy.
Foxworthy, known for his "redneck" jokes, appeared with Romney at the event and urged Republicans to unite behind him.
"I've really tried to avoid politics for a long time, but it was just too important," Foxworthy told Reuters. "It's time as a party to come together. Divided we accomplish nothing, united we're powerful."
Both Gingrich, a former congressman from Georgia, and Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, are staking their candidacies on their conservative credentials.
Front-runner Romney had been seen as too moderate to win one of this weeks primaries in the heart of the conservative South, but he has gained momentum from a series of primary wins in recent weeks. One poll last week showed him with an 8-point lead in Mississippi.
Both Gingrich and Santorum have urged each other to get out of the race to coalesce votes among more conservative Republicans.
The Public Policy Polling conducted its telephone survey on Saturday and Sunday. Its Mississippi poll had 656 likely Republican voters and a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.8 percent. Its Alabama survey has 600 likely Republican primary voters and a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percent.
Separately, a new CBS News-New York Times poll found that Republican voters nationally give Santorum a 4-point edge over Romney, 34 percent to 30 percent, with Gingrich getting 13 percent and Paul 8 percent.
However, 73 percent said they expect Romney will win the Republican nomination.
Santorum defended the drawn-out Republican battle for a nominee and a possible showdown at the party's convention in August.
"If we have continued contested primaries going through this, we're going to see very shortly that the conservative in this race is going to rise," he said on NBC's "Today" program.
"It's a conservative party ... if the opportunity provides itself in an open convention, they are not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor."
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Mobile. Editing by Alister Bell and Christopher Wilson)