Kansas City, Missouri (CNN) - Mitt Romney downplayed expectations in Mississippi and Alabama's Republican contests, saying he expected to walk away with about a third of the delegates when the votes are counted Tuesday night.
"If that's the case, why, that inches us closer to that magic number," he told reporters on his campaign plane in Missouri, underlining his campaign's ferocious attention to the delegate count in the GOP race.
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Polls show Romney, who has struggled to win over some southern voters, now running competitively with his rivals in Mississippi and Alabama.
A win among the staunchly conservative electorate in those states could propel Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich to renewed attention, and reinforce concerns about Romney's ability to draw in evangelical and socially conservative voters.
Conversely, a Romney win in a southern state could put a stop to those nagging doubts.
Romney joked with reporters about his 65th birthday Monday as he handed out iced shamrock and Leprechaun-shaped cookies.
His favorite gift?
"A kiss from my wife," Romney said. "That was the only present I got."