Romney's Run for Alabama Is All About the Economy

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The race for Alabama is all about the economy.

Republican candidates are crisscrossing the state to pitch their messages about jobs and the economy as Alabama prepares to allocate its 50 delegates in Tuesday's primary.

It seems, though, that Alabama conservatives are less concerned about who to select and more intent on choosing the guy who can outwit President Obama on economic issues in the general election.

"They're more concerned about the economy, I can tell you up front," said Clay Marlow, Morgan County GOP chairman. "All you gotta do is run down any town around here, even here where we live in Decatur Ala., and you see all kind of buildings boarded up -- out of business signs. That's not good."

Alabama's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hit 8% in December 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest state-by-state data, which ranks Alabama 29th and just below the national rate.

Alabama's county Republican leaders seem to uniformly agree that as the pivotal southern state prepares for its primary, most people are more concerned about their jobs and the economy than they are about social issues.

"Social issues? Nah, they don't even make first base," Marlow said. "All that stuff about the birth control pill and all that, that was a joke; that was somebody trying to start something and it had no business trying to start it because people didn't buy it."

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Conservative evangelical voters have become synonymous with Republicans in southern states, especially after many politics experts and academics argued that a significant chunk of George W. Bush's 2004 victory depended on the group. But a crippling financial crisis and sluggish global growth since 2008 have dealt American voters a different hand to manage.

Currently, former private-equity businessman Mitt Romney leads the average of major Alabama polls at 26.3%, while Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul trail at 24%, 22.7% and 7%, respectively, according to

Romney has struggled mightily in the two southern state contests so far as he lost South Carolina to Gingrich by 12.5 percentage points and then finished second to Gingrich in the former House speaker's home state of Georgia by 21.3 percentage points.

Romney's suffering in the south could change Tuesday thanks to his message about the economy sticking with voters in Alabama.

"I think people here may look at Mr. Romney's business experience and the mark that he made for himself in the Olympics," said John Gormley, Houston County Republican Party chairman.

Gene Howard, Calhoun County's GOP chairman, said he thinks Romney's business record will earn him favor across the entire state of Alabama, not just in certain pockets.

"That would be who would best appeal to the people on being able to help ... resolve the economic the economic problems that we have," Howard said. "The fellow who best exemplifies that probably has an inside track on the vote Tuesday."

The biggest employer in Howard's Calhoun County is the Annistan Army Depot, which is a "state-of-the-market" maintenance facility, according to its Web site.

The U.S. government owns Anniston, or more specifically, the U.S. military owns the maintenance facility that repairs tanks and employs about 7,000 people.

The depot could be looking at a reduction in employment soon as the government cuts a chunk of its defense spending in the budget and as the United States continues to draw down its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Sherri Sumners, president of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce.

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Romney has promised to modernize the "aging inventories" of the Army, Air Force and Marines and to increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate, according to his Web site's page on National Defense. The page also said Romney will begin to reverse defense cuts set forth by President Obama.

Sumners pointed out that most businesspeople in Calhoun County have hunkered down due to massive uncertainty with the flow of capital.

"I think that businesses just hunker down to see where the economy is going, and it's been a pretty lengthy posture," Sumners said. "Even before the election year it's about waiting to see exactly where everything is headed. ... It's almost like, when is it safe to go outside after the storm?"

Mobile, Ala., is a city that may have a gripe with politicians' (federal, state and local) decisions to clamp down on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit exploded and caused the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

The oil and gas industry is a major sector in Mobile, according to Leigh Herndon, Mobile Chamber of Commerce vice president of communications, and she added that it has slowed since the accident. Mobile has coastline on the Gulf and drilling is allowed in Alabama waters.

"There's no new permits that are being pulled right now and that's pretty disappointing for us," Herndon said. "The industry was growing and more permits were being allowed, so there were more jobs and more growth."

Romney has also slammed the president on energy as he's said he would open America's energy reserves for development, construct pipelines to bring oil from Canada and prevent overregulation. It's important to note that Romney's opponents have also touted these types of reforms.

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Herndon, like Sumners, said that businesspeople seem more concerned with the upcoming general election than Tuesday's primary. The fight for many of Alabama's industries seem more alert about how the Republican nominee and President Obama intend to address government regulations on businesses and what must be done to encourage growth.

Mobile's and Calhoun County's Chamber of Commerce wouldn't directly comment on the Republican candidates, but did say the business communities in those areas haven't ignored what's up for grabs in November.

"I think they're watching," Sumners said.

-- Written by Joe Deaux

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