Mobile, Alabama (CNN) - Morning in Mobile dawned dark and stormy Monday, but a thunderstorm hovering over his outdoor event did not dampen Mitt Romney's air of confidence.
The GOP candidate, who has added additional events in Alabama and Mississippi over the past several days, sounded an optimistic note about the results of those state's Tuesday contests.
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"I just want to say thanks to you for giving me this birthday present," Romney told the audience, who braved a downpour to attend the rally on his 65th birthday. "I'm hoping to unwrap it tomorrow, by the way."
The swath of Southern states have long posed difficulties for Romney, who has struggled to win over some social conservatives and evangelical voters.
But polls in Mississippi and Alabama show the former Massachusetts governor is now competitive with his GOP rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who consider the South to be friendlier territory and a potential springboard for their presidential efforts.
Former Georgia congressman Gingrich has mocked Romney's Southern outreach and charged his opponent was a weak front-runner.
Romney shrugged off that criticism Monday.
"If I'm a weak front-runner, what does that make Newt Gingrich?" Romney said in an interview with Fox News. "Because I'm well ahead of him."
As he spoke to a soaked crowd huddled under umbrellas at the Whistle Stop cafe in Mobile, the GOP candidate delivered more of the sort of lines Gingrich has liked to mock.
Romney said he'd tried catfish for the second time this weekend - over dinner with Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who endorsed him Friday - and declared he'd enjoyed the Southern delicacy.
At earlier stops the Michigan native has also raved about breakfasts of cheesy grits.
Something else he'd enjoyed during his campaign stops? Hugs from "Southern girls" - aged "from 12 to a lot more than 12."
As his audience squeezed in closely under the eaves of the restaurant, Romney remarked upon the intimacy of the gathering.
"Look at us in here," he said. "We are all nice together, all nice and wet, you know, like a can of sardines."
Concentrating on the financial experience he believes will lead him to triumph over his rivals, Romney urged those in the audience who believed Washington was broken to vote for him.
"If you think that Washington is a mess I hope you will send me there so I can fix it," he said. "If you think this country needs to be taken on a different direction than it's been going under the last three year years then I want your vote here in Alabama."
Without naming names, he added his rivals had spent too much time in Washington, telling the audience: "If you think that just having the same people go to the same place but just in different chairs is gonna make things different, why, you can vote for them."
And, standing alongside self-proclaimed "redneck" comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who has backed Romney and will campaign for him in the South, Romney also took an opportunity to poke fun at himself.
"I am looking forward to going there and hunting with you sometime," he told Foxworthy. "And you can actually show me which end of the rifle to point."