WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential race headed South and West on Wednesday, into states where Mitt Romney is likely to face cultural resistance to his political appeal.
The former Massachusetts governor emerged from Super Tuesday voting in 10 states with a commanding lead in delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. Romney won at least 212 of the 419 delegates at stake Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum received 84; Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, got 72; and Texas Rep. Ron Paul collected at least 22.
Romney now has 415 delegates. Trailing are Santorum with 176, Gingrich 105, and Paul 47; 1,144 are needed to nominate.
But Romney's path next turns bumpy, at least briefly.
Kansas will hold caucuses on Saturday, followed by primaries in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday. Kansas has 40 delegates, Alabama 50 and Mississippi 40. None of three states is seen as Romney-friendly territory.
Romney triumphed Tuesday where his campaign strategists thought he must. He narrowly beat Santorum in Ohio, a big industrial state crucial to GOP hopes this fall. Romney also won caucuses in Idaho and Alaska and primaries in Virginia, Vermont and Massachusetts — six of the 10 states in play, showing broad cultural and geographic diversity.
But Romney showed limited strength in the South and rural Plains states. Santorum won Tennessee, North Dakota and Oklahoma, while Gingrich won his former home state of Georgia.
Those outcomes suggest regional trouble immediately ahead for Romney.
"You could take Romney to a chitlin cooking, give him boiled and fried chitlins, and if he could eat without flinching we'd label him a good ol' boy. But I don't see that happening," said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.
In Alabama, Gingrich is well known and starts with a big cultural advantage.
"He comes from the neighboring state, and he talks a lot about what's wrong with (President Barack) Obama," said William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama. "Santorum's sort of an unknown around here."
One factor driving the Southern vote is likely to be religion. Exit polls found that in Tennessee and Oklahoma, more than 72 percent of Tuesday's voters were white evangelicals, and Santorum beat Romney by double-digit margins for them in both states. In Georgia, 64 percent were evangelicals, and they gave Gingrich 52 percent of the vote, more than double Santorum's support. Romney had 19 percent of them.
Romney, a Mormon, may not play well in Alabama and Mississippi, the analysts said.
"The Mormon religion (issue) is a big deal," said Wiseman.
At the same time, however, it's important to note that Romney finished second Tuesday in Tennessee, Georgia and Oklahoma, which suggests that while he's not the favorite in Southern climes, he's acceptable to many there. That could prove important come November.
First, though, comes Kansas, one of the nation's most Republican states. The last time it voted Democratic in a presidential election was 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson crushed Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a social conservative in the mold of Santorum, won the 2008 Kansas caucuses.
"From the climate of the state, I would think Santorum ought to do OK," said Allan Cigler, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas. "Romney will get some support, but by and large, only people like Paul and Santorum issue-wise fit many parts of the state."
Romney was confident Wednesday, telling CNBC's "Squawk Box" that he's getting "the kind of support across the party that I need to become the nominee." He also got the support of former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, and he plans to campaign in Alabama and Mississippi later this week.
Romney has long had a strategic plan to accumulate delegates methodically, and he maintained Wednesday that the plan is working.
"We've got the time and the resources and a plan to get all the delegates," he said, "and we think that will get done before the convention."
Santorum continued trying to paint himself as the under-funded underdog fighting the GOP establishment. His press secretary, Alice Stewart, maintained that "people see that he has the right message and he is a real person."
Gingrich plans three rallies Thursday in Alabama and three in Mississippi on Friday. He canceled previously announced visits to Kansas to concentrate on the Deep South.
(David Goldstein of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
ON THE WEB:
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow David Lightman on Twitter: @LightmanDavid
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington