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In South, GOP Voters Balance Faith, Defeating Obama

Alabama voters bow their heads in prayer before the start of the Alabama Republican Presidential Forum on March 12 in Birmingham, Ala.
Win McNamee
Alabama voters bow their heads in prayer before the start of the Alabama Republican Presidential Forum on March 12 in Birmingham, Ala.

It's election day Tuesday — this time in the Deep South as voters in Alabama and Mississippi head to the polls. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney spent some time campaigning in the two states while Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich blanketed the region. And Santorum and Gingrich met at a forum Monday night in Birmingham in a last-minute effort to woo undecided voters.

The setting couldn't have been more picturesque: the stately Alabama Theater in downtown Birmingham. About 2,000 Republican faithful turned out for the presidential forum, which began with a prayer.

Alabama is in the Bible Belt — and it's the kind of place that when strangers are introduced, they ask what church you go to. So for Santorum, speaking in this most reliably Republican state, it was easy to feel right at home.


"When people read the Constitution and say, 'Oh, we get our rights from the Constitution,' that is wrong," he said. "The Constitution does not give us rights. It recognizes rights that are written on our heart because we are a creature of God. That's where we get our rights from."

The forum Monday night was not a debate. Both Gingrich and Santorum were given 15 minutes to speak and then answered the same four questions from a panel.

Both candidates repeated familiar campaign themes. Santorum: shrink the size and scale of federal government; allow more drilling for oil. Gingrich: lower gas prices by revamping U.S. energy policy; increase rather than decrease military spending. For the most part, the two candidates attacked President Obama and not each other.

"We are not just in the business of defeating Obama," Gingrich said. "We are in the business of replacing the bureaucracies, replacing the laws, correcting the judges and getting back to a country that's on the right track."

The crowd clapped and cheered many times during the candidates' comments. After the speeches, people streamed out of the theater. Billy Lauderdale of McCalla, Ala., was all smiles. But he still wasn't sure exactly who he's going to vote for Tuesday.


"I keep trying to make up my mind, you know. I don't want this thing to drag out until September because we need the time to fight Obama," he said.

Lauderdale likes Gingrich but may end up choosing Romney, even though Romney and fellow Republican Ron Paul skipped this event. Several people said that irritated them so much, they won't vote for either one.

For Becca Robinson of Oneonta, Ala., one candidate will get her vote: Santorum. And there's one reason why: "He wants to bring God into everything, and to me and my Christianity, that's what I needed to hear. You know, that's what we need," she said.

When asked how important a role religion will be in the presidential race, Robinson didn't hesitate. "I think it should be the most important value to bring back our country the way it needs to be," she said.

Judy Sellers came to the forum with her young daughter. "Everybody in America needs to pray, and just do what God has you to do as far as voting in the election," said Sellers, a nurse who said she is frustrated by Obama's signature health care law.

Romney is a Mormon, an unfamiliar faith here. But his religion didn't come up among the dozen attendees I spoke with. Instead, for people like Judy Sellers, it was Obama's faith that was an issue.

"I really don't think that a nation that falls on Muslim leadership, potentially, is going to be a nation that's going to survive," she said.

Obama is a Christian, not a Muslim. It's an issue that came up four years ago when he ran for president.

And it's not the only topic that made a return appearance last night. John Gentile of Crossville, Tenn., still doesn't believe Obama is allowed to be president because his father was born in Kenya.

"I just don't like the directions that he's headed in, and personally I don't think he qualifies to be president under the 'natural born citizen.' In the Constitution it states that you have to have two parents that were born in the United States, so that there's no alternative allegiance by any member of the family," Gentile said.

The Constitution actually doesn't say that.

But it gets to the complicated nature in the Deep South of Republicans picking a presidential candidate they think can beat Obama in the fall. That's the choice voters in Alabama and Mississippi face Tuesday when they go to the polls.