As Republican Mitt Romney rolled up victories across the country Tuesday, he barely scored in a region crucial to GOP chances in November: the South.
The region that's emerged as an Achilles heel for the former Massachusetts governor not only could prolong the Republican nomination contest but spell problems for his party in the fall, at least in key Southern battlegrounds.
Romney claimed six Super Tuesday victories but lost Georgia to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Tennessee and Oklahoma to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. He carried Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich failed to make the ballot.
Polls have shown Romney trailing Santorum in Alabama, which holds its primary Tuesday along with Mississippi. Louisiana votes March 24. Earlier, Romney won Florida but lost badly in South Carolina.
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Exit polls this week showed, again, that Romney's challenge is with the social conservatives and tea party backers in his party's base.
"The Southern primaries are dominated by very conservative voters, and a lot of them don't think Romney is sufficiently conservative," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University.
Romney's showing came a day before Democratic President Barack Obama trumpeted North Carolina on his fourth visit to the state in six months. "I love this state," the president told 450 workers Wednesday at the Daimler truck plant in Mount Holly.
In the end, most experts predict that most of the South will go Republican in November regardless of the nominee. But can Romney win three Southern states Obama took in 2008?
"Romney certainly is weak in the South in Republican primaries, but I think he will inherit the South and border states in November, with maybe a couple exceptions," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Obama is limited really to (competing in) North Carolina, Virginia and Florida."
Obama's visit was the latest by a high-profile administration figure. First lady Michelle Obama was in Charlotte last week. Vice President Joe Biden visited Thomasville earlier this month.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Tuesday's primary voters were "dissatisfied with their choices."
"We saw that dissatisfaction super-sized," he said.
Most of Tuesday's primaries saw decreased GOP turnout from four years ago. But if Republicans see "an enthusiasm gap," Democrats could, too.
An Elon University Poll this week showed Obama's numbers climbing in North Carolina, but more people still disapprove than approve of how he's handling the economy and his job overall.
"There's lessening enthusiasm for Obama, too," Sabato said. "I teach on a college campus. I can see it and feel it. (But) Romney manages to outdo Obama in the lessened-enthusiasm category, which takes some doing."
According to Real Clear Politics, polls show Obama leading Romney in a general election match-up in Virginia. And a recent Public Policy Polling survey showed Romney trailing Santorum in North Carolina.
N.C. as a diversion
The Obama campaign is making a push in each of the three Southern battlegrounds. Messina said the campaign registered more than 3,000 North Carolina voters this past week alone.
Some analysts, however, say he doesn't even need to win the Tar Heel state.
"Obama can win without North Carolina," said John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation.
"Republicans cannot win without North Carolina. The reason Obama is playing in North Carolina is not because he desperately needs the state, but because it's a must-win state for Romney.
"... If the Obama team can prompt Republicans to spend money for Romney in North Carolina, they would have accomplished their objective, which is to have that money not be spent in Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire."
N.C. GOP spokesman Rob Lockwood said that in the end, the Republican nominee will be strong throughout the region.
"Right now every candidate has their strengths and weaknesses, (but) at the end of the day we're going to unite as a party," he said. "We are confident whoever our nominee is will beat President Obama."
Super Tuesday may have made Romney's nomination more likely, but it did little to signal an end to the Republican contest. After Tuesday, Romney has 429 delegates on his way to the 1,144 needed.
"I'm hard-pressed, particularly after (Tuesday) night, to see a scenario where either Santorum or Gingrich are going to be able to get to 1,144," said Josh Putnam, a Davidson College political scientist and an expert in delegate math. "Barring Mitt Romney's sudden and untimely death, it's just not going to happen."
Staff writer Tim Funk contributed.
To read more, visit www.charlotteobserver.com.