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Originally published Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at 9:07 PM

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In rural, religious South, Romney just doesn't connect

Mitt Romney won six of the 10 states in play Tuesday, but rival Rick Santorum was reinvigorated by wins in three states and the Romney camp is buckling down for what could be a prolonged struggle for delegates.

Los Angeles Times

The road to Tampa

THE DELEGATE COUNT in the Republican presidential race (including endorsements by superdelegates) and what lies ahead:

The standings

Mitt Romney 415
Rick Santorum 176
Newt Gingrich 105
Ron Paul 47
Upcoming races

Saturday: Kansas caucuses, 40 delegates at stake; Hawaii caucuses, 17 delegates

Tuesday: Alabama primary, 47 delegates; Mississippi primary, 37 delegates

Sources: The Associated Press,

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ONEONTA, Ala. — Randy Underwood cringed at the mention of Mitt Romney's name.

Underwood, who lives in this religious-right stronghold in the hills of northern Alabama, would prefer Romney over President Obama. Yet Romney's life in the rarefied world of the super wealthy is far from anything familiar to Underwood — or to anyone else shopping on a recent day at Oneonta's Hometown Market, in rural Blount County.

"I'm just not sure he can understand what the common person needs," said Underwood, 52, a retired Birmingham police crime-scene investigator.

That theme is prevalent among culturally conservative Republicans, who in the next week will have an outsized role in the GOP presidential race, with Kansas' caucuses Saturday and primaries in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday.

Romney won six of the 10 states in play Tuesday, but he came out in worse shape in some respects.

His scrappy rival, Rick Santorum, was reinvigorated by wins in three states Tuesday, and the Romney camp is buckling down for what could be a prolonged struggle for delegates that could run to the national convention in Tampa, Fla., in August.

Romney's perceived trouble in empathizing with Americans who struggle to pay their bills is part of his larger difficulty in consolidating his party's base, particularly voters most animated by social issues. The perception has encumbered his campaign, and it risks becoming a drag on his candidacy in the general election, should he win the party nomination.

"Turnout: That's why it's important," said Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate. "Lack of enthusiasm will lead to lower turnout."

Any Republican nominee, regardless of turnout, is all but certain to carry the Deep South. But the chill toward Romney in Blount County reflects the same trouble that he faces among religious conservatives in Midwest states and elsewhere. As President George W. Bush demonstrated in 2004, strong turnout of culturally conservative voters can tip closely divided states in a Republican's favor.

One thing Romney can count on in conservative bastions is a fervent desire to unseat Obama.

"I got no use for Obama, and it's not because of the color of his skin," said Leldon Thomas, a retired truck repairman chewing tobacco outside the Walmart that locals blame for siphoning business from stores along Oneonta's ramshackle main street. "It's his socialist government and all the money he's throwing away."

In these parts, Obama, a Christian, is seen by many as Muslim, and not everyone believes he was born in Hawaii. "It's not that he's black," said Don Tielking, a barber for more than 40 years. "It's that he's not an American citizen."

For Tielking, the problem with Romney is his Mormon faith, although he gladly would overlook it in a Romney-Obama race.

"Christ is the head of my church, and his was some Smith guy who claimed to be a latter-day prophet," said Tielking, referring to Joseph Smith Jr., the 19th-century founder of the Latter-day Saints movement.

An hour's drive from Birmingham, where some residents commute to work, Blount County is 93 percent white. The median annual household income is $46,000.

Romney's is more than 450 times that. He and his wife, Ann, reported income of nearly $21 million last year.

"Romney is too rich," said Ricky Hicks, a lifelong Blount County resident who sells plastic floral arrangements. "I think he's for big business."

Hicks sees Santorum as "down to earth," but Romney as "arrogant."

Ellie Foley, 67, smoking a cigarette outside her collectibles shop, put it another way. "He's got a cocky attitude," she said.

The opinions of Hicks and Foley are shared widely. Surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that the share of voters who believed Romney "understands the needs of people like you" dropped from 39 percent in November to 27 percent last month.

Information from the Tribune Washington Bureau is included in this report.

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