As Gingrich's hopes dim, Georgia offers potential spark

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a campaign stop at a hotel Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, in Federal Way, Wash.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Newt Gingrich
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

COVINGTON, Ga. -- Newt Gingrich has been here before -- twice, as a matter of fact.

Relegated to a political afterthought when his campaign imploded last summer, Gingrich clawed his way back to the forefront of the Republican race and surged to a December lead in Iowa.

Then, after finishing a seemingly disastrous fourth in the nation's first voting state, the former House speaker was once again counted out -- until he delivered a commanding victory in South Carolina that appeared to shock just about everyone but the winner himself.

That was almost six weeks ago, and Gingrich has not had so much as a whiff of victory in any state since then.

With no debates on the calendar to help him regenerate his onstage magic of the past and polls showing him far behind Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in most of the 10 Super Tuesday contests, Gingrich's back has never been more firmly pressed against the wall.

But here in Georgia, where he represented the 6th congressional district in the House for two decades, he appears to have a fighting chance to turn things around once again.

It won't be easy.

Though he announced that he will make brief forays into Ohio and Tennessee before Tuesday's voting, Gingrich plans to spend the better part of the next few days in the Peach State, which suggests that anything more than a single Super Tuesday victory may be out of reach.

Georgia does offer the biggest prize of the day with 76 delegates up for grabs, but Gingrich's decision to downplay the nine other states does not speak well of his ability to cast a wide net just as the GOP race is becoming a nationwide sprint.

Still, the line of thinking in Gingrich's camp is that if he can win a majority of Georgia's proportionally allocated delegates, he will be well positioned to repeat that feat in Mississippi and Alabama -- two other Deep South states that hold their primaries a week after Super Tuesday and award the substantial total of 90 delegates between them.

Flanked by Gov. Nathan Deal and other Georgia statehouse backers, the candidate on Wednesday made the rounds at the capitol in Atlanta and promised a big win here.

Though Gingrich has never run for statewide office in Georgia and long ago relocated northward to the Washington suburb of McLean, Va., Georgia political watchers note that he was heavily engaged in building the state Republican Party at the local level during his years in Congress and remains widely familiar here.

Polls indicate that Gingrich's home field advantage is at least as strong as Romney's was in Michigan.

A Survey USA poll released on Tuesday shows Gingrich leading Santorum and Romney by 15 and 16 percent, respectively.

And while there has not yet been a poll released on the heels of Romney's Michigan and Arizona triumphs on Tuesday, unaligned Georgia GOP consultant and pollster Mark Rountree said that Santorum's Michigan defeat suggested that the former Pennsylvania senator will have a more difficult time consolidating the "Romney alternative" vote here.

"[Gingrich] has community support that goes beyond politics -- he was a true party builder here," Rountree said. "He just has an infrastructure here that no one else took the time to build."

Rountree noted that Romney does have a small organization in the state left over from his 2008 campaign, when he finished in third place -- just four points behind Mike Huckabee, who narrowly won the state over John McCain.

Romney figures to do well in the Atlanta metropolitan area, an upper-scale region that is home to about 45 percent of Georgia's likely Republican voters.

But a majority of the state's GOP primary voters are expected to be evangelicals, which could signal trouble for Romney, who has not traditionally done well with that demographic.

The state's relatively high religious and rural electorate also makes Georgia a tempting target for Santorum, who will squeeze two rallies here into his jam-packed schedule on Thursday morning before he heads west to Washington, in advance of that state's Saturday caucuses.

With each candidate holding distinct advantages, the Republican primary in Georgia is shaping up to be a tight three-man race, as it was four years ago.

But Georgia is a must-win state only for Gingrich, and he knows it.

At a campaign stop in this Atlanta suburb on Wednesday, Gingrich doled out the red meat in its rawest form, as he extolled his own "American campaign" and chastised "Obama's secretary of anti-energy" before reminding a packed house of his vow to dramatically reduce the price of gasoline while president.

"I'm going to go out to the country and say, 'Here are the choices: Do you like $2.50 a gallon gas or do you like $10 a gallon a gas?'" Gingrich said.

Among the hundreds of Republicans who applauded boisterously throughout the speech was Russell Tonning of nearby Conyers, who had previously supported fellow Georgian Herman Cain before switching to Gingrich.

Echoing the candidate's frequent lament, Tonning blamed the media for having previously written off the former speaker.

"Y'all have y'all's agenda," Tonning said. "Y'all know who you want to get rid of."

Longtime Gingrich supporter Eleanor Smith, who previously volunteered for the candidate in South Carolina and Florida, homed in on the gas-price message, holding a sign outside the event that read, "How much is in your wallet? None! I bought gas."

Her enthusiasm for Gingrich was palpable, but asked if she thought he could actually win the nomination, Smith sidestepped the question.

"I think he's the smartest guy running," she said.

Pressed on whether she thinks he still has a shot, Smith replied, "He has one in Georgia."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.