"Strange things are happenin' to me," a bewitched Mitt Romney said recently to a crowd of Mississippi supporters. The former Massachusetts governor is right: Strange things do happen to folks, especially national political candidates, when they talk to us Southerners. They start drawling and twanging, trying to sound like us. Sometimes, they're mocking us; sometimes they're just trying to be friendly. We know the difference.
And they often start talking about things they think we're fascinated by — guns and grits and Gettysburg.
The Republican primary candidates are just the latest batch. The last four standing candidates — Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Romney and Rick Santorum — have been courting constituents in the South off and on throughout the campaign. (On Tuesday people in Alabama and Mississippi go to the polls; 90 Republican delegates are at stake.)
And for some inexplicable reason, when speaking to Southerners, each of the men has adapted his message to what he thinks Southerners want to hear.
- Mitt Romney, the consummate non-Southerner, waxes prosaic about cheese grits — calling them "cheesy grits."
- Newt Gingrich, who is from Georgia but sounds like he was born in a Washington think tank, preaches about the difficulty of putting gun racks in Volts and about how it's politically important to "understand grits."
- Ron Paul — who moved to Texas as an adult — shows up on YouTube, with some variation of a Southern flag behind him, arguing in his professorial way that slavery was not the primary cause of the Civil War.
- Pennsylvanian Rick Santorum, mobilizing folks in Mobile, starts dropping his G's and saying things like hostin' and helpin'.
Goldarnit, it's National Talk Lack a Southerner Day.
The Republicans aren't the only practitioners. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama took a turn during their 2008 primary race, too.
But what exactly do candidates hope to accomplish? "Usually, the role of Mississippi and Alabama is to follow, not to choose. The states have voted for every GOP nominee since Ronald Reagan. But their primaries have usually come too late to matter, and the nominee has already been picked," reporters David Farenthold and Krissah Thompson pointed out Monday in The Washington Post. "The two are left out in other ways: They haven't produced a president since the Confederate president, Mississippi's Jefferson Davis. They have never produced a GOP nominee."
Some observers believe the blending-in attempts are futile — even self-defeating. Voters "can see that these politicians are nakedly trying to score points, and if they can't figure out grits, for example, it is counterproductive," says Louisiana Republican Party activist and radio commentator Jeff Crouere. He adds that Romney "may still prevail in Alabama, but not because of his expertise in Southern culture."
And Merle Black, a Southern politics professor at Emory University, says, "Pandering usually becomes a story when journalists notice a candidate using different language than their normal expressions, and especially when the candidate uses words or phrases that ring false."
Catering to the catfish and hush-puppy crowd could backfire, Black says. "A person might lose some votes over such pandering but rarely gains votes. So I don't think it helps. Few voters would pick candidates on this basis."