Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Donald Trump is a brash New Yorker who knows the path to the Republican presidential nomination runs through a swath of Southern states where residents pride themselves on graciousness and gentility.

He leads many state polls in the region just as he does nationally. In the last few weeks he’s hired staff members in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia to go along with staff in South Carolina, which hosts the South’s first primary.

"It’s almost like we’re running a campaign for president of the United States," quipped Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski when asked about the expansion.

Lewandowski said the hires and Trump’s schedule — he’ll be in metro Atlanta on Saturday — are proof that Trump is in the race for good. Trump and his aides are pushing back on suggestions — fueled by his own comments — that he is plotting an exit in case his poll numbers continue to slide, as they have recently.

Lewandowski declined to talk about advertising plans and side-stepped questions on whether any firms have been hired to help with ballot access work. But he and political players in the South say Trump shouldn’t be taken lightly in the region, even if it may not seem like a natural fit.

"Look, the idea that only Southerners appeal to Southerners and Northerners appeal to Northerners is overdone," said David Mowery, an Alabama-based consultant who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats in multiple states. "He may not sound like us, but he’s saying the things that people in the Republican base — and even disaffected, frustrated voters outside that base — want to hear."

South Carolina is accustomed to its place immediately after Iowa and New Hampshire. But the rest of the South is enjoying a newfound prominence in the nominating process, driven by Georgia and others moving up for a March 1 Super Tuesday dubbed the "the SEC primary" after the college athletics league. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia will have 471 delegates at stake that day. Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Florida follow in the next two weeks with a combined 301 delegates.

With the earlier votes, the candidates have followed. Trump is expected to draw thousands to a campaign rally Saturday in Norcross, Georgia. In August, he set the high mark for Republicans this campaign when he drew about 30,000 to a rally in Mobile, Alabama.

Among the Southern states voting in March, only Florida is winner-take-all, with the rest using varying proportional distributions of delegates. That means the region won’t put any single candidate on the cusp of the necessary 1,236 delegates necessary for nomination. But it will winnow the field.

If anything, Trump’s anti-establishment rants may resonate more strongly in the region that has long been the nation’s most conservative and most distrustful of the central government.

"He comes in and plays smash-mouth football, and it fires people up," says Henry Barbour, a Mississippian and influential member of the Republican National Committee. Barbour said Trump would be well-served to add more policy specifics to his personality and style-driven pitch, but he said it’s obvious Trump’s initial approach has worked, animating a wing of Southern Republicans who look at the establishment and say "not only no, but hell no."

Barbour, who is neutral in the primary, initially backed Rick Perry, a former Texas governor who was at ease with Southerners but dropped out. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist preacher who also fits the Southern politician prototype, previously called the SEC primary "manna from heaven" and won several primaries in the region in 2008. But he’s found a tougher path this year. So, too, have Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

For his part, Huckabee, without directly addressing Trump, has boasted of his grassroots organization in South Carolina and neighboring states as more important than Trump’s standing months from voting. And, indeed, candidates like Huckabee, Jindal and Graham appear to devote much more energy than Trump to the meet-and-greet affairs that occur away from the big rallies. If any candidate has managed to produce both large crowds like Trump and build a nuts-and-bolts organization in the region, it’s Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another conservative who appeals to the region’s anti-Washington bent.

Barbour said Trump should try for the same balance if he hopes to sustain momentum. But Roger Villere, Louisiana’s longtime Republican Party chairman and vice chairman of the national GOP, said it may not matter in 2016. With so many states bunched close together, he said, it may be a campaign won largely on television and sweeping visits — just the race for a bombastic billionaire.

"Sure, you need some help on the ground," Villere said, "but I’m sure Mr. Trump or any of the rest of them who are doing well coming out of South Carolina will find everything they need."
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Newark, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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