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Politics

In the rural religious South, Mitt Romney just doesn’t connect

Randy Underwood cringed at the mention of Mitt Romney’s name.

Underwood, who lives in this small town in rural Blount County, a religious-right stronghold in the rolling hills of northern Alabama, would prefer Romney over President Obama.

But Romney’s life in the rarefied world of the super wealthy is a long way from anything familiar to Underwood — or to anyone else shopping the other day at Oneonta’s Hometown Market.

“I’m just not sure he can understand what the common person needs,” said Underwood, 52, a retired Birmingham police crime-scene investigator who was heading home with groceries in the back of his pickup.

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It’s a prevalent theme among culturally conservative Republicans not just in Alabama, which holds its presidential primary next week, but across the nation. Many of them favor Rick Santorum, who holds an edge over Romney in polls of Republicans in Alabama, thanks largely to his religion-based appeals to evangelical Christians.

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. It has encumbered his campaign against GOP rivals, 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 the former Massachusetts governor faces among religious conservatives in swing states in the Midwest and elsewhere. As President George W. Bush demonstrated in his 2004 run for reelection, strong turnout of culturally conservative voters can tip closely divided states in a Republican’s favor.

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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 Wal-Mart that locals blame for siphoning business from the long-established stores along Oneonta’s ramshackle main street. “It’s his socialist government and all the money he’s throwing away.”

Around here, Obama, who is 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, who has been cutting hair at the local barber shop for more than 40 years. “It’s that he’s not an American citizen.”

For Tielking, who took a seat in his barber’s chair to chat during a lull between customers, the problem with Romney is his Mormon faith, although he would gladly overlook it if he had to pick between him and Obama.

“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. “I’m not prejudiced against a Mormon. It’s just some of their beliefs that I’m against.”

Baptists and Methodists dominate Blount County, where the sale of alcoholic drinks is banned. Like predominantly white counties all over the South, it started shifting allegiance from Democrats to Republicans as the civil rights movement gained force in the 1960s. Since then, the Republican Party has strengthened its hold on the region with moral-values appeals to evangelicals.

In the GOP presidential primary four years ago, Blount County favored former Baptist minister Mike Huckabee over Romney by nearly 5 to 1. Republican John McCain trounced Obama in the general election, winning 84% of the vote in Blount County.

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

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Romney’s is more than 450 times that. Last year, he and his wife, Ann, reported income of nearly $21 million.

“Romney is too rich,” said Ricky Hicks, a lifelong Blount County resident who sells plastic floral arrangements at a sprawling street corner shop on the highway that cuts through town. “I think he’s for big business.”

Hicks, who voted for Bush and McCain, sees Santorum as “down to earth” but Romney as “arrogant.”

Ellie Foley, 67, smoking a cigarette outside her collectibles shop a short walk away, put it another way. “He’s got a cocky attitude,” she said, even as she conceded favoring Romney over Obama.

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

John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and other presidents found ways to overcome the political downside of great wealth. Romney, however, has fueled impressions with a series of gaffes that he is out of touch. He challenged former rival Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet, told a crowd in Detroit that his wife drives two Cadillacs and mentioned at the Daytona 500 that some friends owned NASCAR teams.

Ann Romney aggravated matters in a Fox News interview this week while explaining how her ordeals with multiple sclerosis and breast cancer had heightened her compassion. “I don’t even consider myself wealthy,” she said in passing.

Still, Romney’s career as an investment executive can be a key asset, even in Blount County. Sara Holloway, who recently retired as business manager at a nursing home, likes Santorum but might vote for Romney in Alabama’s primary.

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“I like the fact that he was a businessman,” she said as she left a hair salon in Oneonta. “That’s what government is. It’s a business, and he’s been very successful.”

Across town at the Cato clothing store, Sherry Glass agreed — up to a point.

“There’s not really any of them that I think is that good,” said Glass, 58, who handles payroll for a quarry blasting company in Birmingham. “One that sticks out, I guess, is Romney.”

Glass’ main hesitation about Romney was similar to that of her Blount County neighbors’. “He’s a very rich guy that is just out of touch with what our common everyday people see,” she said.

michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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