MEMPHIS -- Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts looked out over a crowd of about 2,000 mostly Southern Republicans yesterday and declared that he shared their staunch conservative values, even though he leads ''the bluest state in America."
But while Romney earned several standing ovations from the delegates to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, many expressed doubts that a Massachusetts politician, or a Mormon, could win a Southern GOP presidential primary.
''I thought he was outstanding and he's definitely running" for president, said Era Jennings, a Republican activist from Jackson, Miss. ''But I just think someone from Massachusetts doesn't have that much of a chance. I really don't know how he could do it. He's very dedicated, but just being from that state -- the party is just not ready."
Romney spent the day trying to prove his conservative credentials before a largely Southern and Midwestern audience at the unofficial kickoff to the 2008 campaign. Throughout his remarks, the governor sought to separate his political identity from his state's liberal image, often describing himself as a stranger in a strange land.
''The biggest leap in my life, however, was becoming, as a conservative Republican, the governor of the bluest state in America, Massachusetts," Romney said. ''Even in a state as blue as Massachusetts, it makes a difference having a Republican governor. You see, a Republican governor who applies Republican principles can reach across the aisle and make things happen."
In comments that largely tracked with previous stump speeches, Romney also touted his fiscal record in the 2002 Olympics and in cutting the state budget deficit without raising taxes. He stressed the need to improve math and science education at home and voiced support for military action against Islamic extremists abroad.
''Some people think that the jihadists are just a few people in the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan who want to set off a bomb here and there," he said. ''It's much worse than that. The jihadists want to reassemble all the lands that were ever part of Islam, put them under one caliphate. And for that to happen, they have to crush the head of the snake. That's us."
But Romney also made it clear that he is running against the state where he was elected governor in 2002. At a private breakfast with about three-dozen party leaders, Romney portrayed himself as a champion of ''Republican values" amid the liberals of Massachusetts, according to several delegates who attended.
''He talked about being the lone red dot in a blue state and how tough it is being a Republican governor with Democratic majorities in the Legislature," said Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
The Massachusetts stigma is not the only challenge Romney will have to overcome if he wants to best other likely GOP candidates in the South, including US Senators John McCain of Arizona, George Allen of Virginia, and Bill Frist of Tennessee.
Several delegates said that rank-and-file Southern Republican primary voters, who are heavily evangelical Christians and Southern Baptists, will have difficulty supporting Romney because he is a Mormon.
Romney told a South Carolina newspaper last month that evangelicals should know that he is ''a person of faith" who believes ''that Jesus Christ is my savior." In his speech yesterday, however, he backed off from overtly religious language, instead speaking more generally about conservative values.
Cindy Costa of South Carolina, an evangelical Christian who attended Romney's breakfast, said she was impressed with Romney, but believes he needs to do more to emphasize his belief in biblical values.
''Obviously, there will be questions," she said. ''I don't know much about the Mormon faith, but if people get ugly [about his Mormonism], especially people in the Christian community, that will be hurtful. I hope they listen to the man to see if his values line up with theirs."
Scott Magill, a conservative Christian from Missouri, was blunter. ''I need to hear more from him about the Mormon thing," he said ''Evangelicals are going to have a lot of trouble with it."
There may be a limit to how far Romney can or will go in seeking to win over suspicious Southern conservatives. Even as he sought to emphasize his conservative credentials yesterday, Romney sidestepped using the harsher rhetoric of more firebrand social conservatives.
For example, the audience applauded after Romney declared ''We've got to change our immigration policy." But he proceeded to talk about the need to allow foreign math and science students to stay in the country after graduating and said nothing about whether he believed that illegal immigrants should be able to become legal guest workers.
Similarly, Romney blasted the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts for legalizing same-sex marriage. But he acknowledged the court's reasoning that adults have a right to be treated equally, as he argued that the needs of adults are outweighed by a child's right ''to have both a mother and a father."
Some GOP delegates said that despite Romney's efforts he will never be perceived as the most conservative candidate in the presidential race, so the Massachusetts governor's chances in the crucial conservative stronghold of the South remain questionable.
''Mitt is very sharp; he's got a great image and [is] a very good speaker," Anuzis said. But, he said, ''I don't quite see where to place Romney in this race."