Newt's Southern stand

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pauses while speaking to the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, Thursday, March 1, 2012, in Atlanta.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

(CBS News) ATLANTA  -- Georgia is Newt Gingrich's homecoming and firewall. So far, Gingrich has won only one Republican presidential primary -- South Carolina, and that was six weeks ago. But Gingrich expects to bounce back in the Peach State, which is a state he represented in Congress for twenty years, and where he maintains a wide lead in opinion polls over rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.

"I have to win Georgia," Gingrich told the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce this week, "to be credible in the race."

Cobb County is at the heart of the suburban Atlanta congressional district that knows his politics best. It was these voters who sent Gingrich to Washington when he was Speaker of the from 1995 to 1999 and for many of his ten terms representing Georgia in the Capitol.

"We need to control spending, reform government, and balance the federal budget for a generation," Gingrich told his audience. "This isn't a theory. It's what we did."

Gingrich prides himself on governing during the prosperous 1990s -- alongside Democratic President Bill Clinton -- when the budget deficit reached zero and was balanced for four years during Gingrich's tenure as Speaker. But the road to Congress was a long one for Gingrich, who lost his first races in 1974 and 1976, before wining in 1978.

"I ran for five years and lost twice before I finally won," Gingrich told me in an interview. "Then we spent sixteen years creating a majority. So folks here were very supportive for a very long time. It's been emotionally very, very good."

Gingrich has spent more days on the ground in Georgia than any other presidential candidate. It's a campaign down memory lane that travels from Atlanta and its outskirts to Savannah on the state's Atlantic Coast, to Columbus, the home to the U.S. Army's Fort Stewart, and to Carrollton, the west Georgia town where he taught college in the 1970s.

"There were people there I've known for forty years," Gingrich said of the Carrollton stop. "You have guys that come in and say, you know, 'My dad took your course.' Then you realize how long you've been at this business."

Randy Evans was one of Gingrich's geography students back in the late 1970s at West Georgia College.

"He had an unquenchable thirst for information, and as a result, he just had a fountain of ideas," said Evans, now an attorney and adviser to the campaign. He has been by Gingrich's side for more than thirty years.

"In 1979, I went to Washington and lived in the basement of his house," Evans said. "When he became speaker in 1995, there were thousands of things that he wanted to do, because he knew that for over forty years, the Democrats had been in control, and he wanted to make big changes fast."

Those big changes included term limits, which did not pass Congress, and welfare reform, which did. These and other proposals -- from tort reform to tougher prison sentences for federal crimes -- were outlined in a 1994 campaign manifesto Gingrich called the "Contract with America."

"Here was someone who said what he meant, meant what he said, and did what he said he was going to do," said Rick Tyler, who served as Gingrich's spokesman for 12 years after Gingrich left Congress. He now helps run Winning Our Future, a Super PAC that has spent millions of dollars on advertising supporting Gingrich.

Tyler said: "The whole Contract With America was a management document. It basically said, 'If you elect us, we will do these things.' And guess what? When they got elected, to the shock of everybody, they actually did these things. We need that kind of leadership again."

At a Gingrich rally in Covington, Georgia, this week, plumber Caleb Frazier was one of 400 supporters in attendance.

"Newt is everything that Obama is not and can't be, regarding foreign policy, regarding a tax plan, regarding a solution to bring down the national debt," Frazier said. "This country is headed in a bad direction right now, and I really feel like Newt is the guy that can at least get us started on the right path to get that thing turned around."

Georgia is the linchpin of Gingrich's southern strategy on Super Tuesday. He also hopes to do well on Tennessee and Oklahoma and carry momentum from a Georgia win into primaries later this month in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

"You rebuild by playing to strength," Gingrich said in the interview. An Atlanta Journal Constitution poll  published Saturday showed Gingrich with the support of 38 percent of likely Republican voters in Georgia, while Romney had 24 percent, and Santorum, 22 percent. 

"In the end, Republicans are going to say, 'Who can beat Obama?' Romney has so far failed to close that sale," Gingrich said. However, he stopped short of predicting a brokered Republican National Convention this August in Tampa.

"If he [Romney] continues to fail and only survives by driving down turnout, at some point people are going to say 'not him.' The morning they say that, about half of his delegates are going to leave him" Gingrich said. "On the other hand, if either Santorum or I get hot enough, they'll come to us, and so I think you have possibly Romney winning by sheer attrition, possibly there's Santorum or Gingrich suddenly becoming the candidate who can beat Obama, or you have a potentially a brokered convention, a really wild experience, which you guys in the media would love."

After calling Mitt Romney a "Massachusetts moderate" for months in Georgia stump speeches, a right-to-work state, Gingrich began labeling Santorum a "Pennsylvania big labor Republican." The Gingrich campaign also released a list of Santorum congressional votes it considered objectionable.

"First of all, he voted with big labor against FedEx in what was a very tough jurisdictional fight where the unions were desperate to try to organize FedEx, and they were trying to use political power to make it possible to do it," Gingrich said in the interview. "Second, every time they asked him to vote for a higher minimum wage he voted with labor."

Santorum rejected the accusation by asserting there was little difference in his career voting rating by the AFL-CIO and Gingrich's, and that the umbrella union has spent millions of dollars to defeat him in his unsuccessful bid for a third Senate term in 2006.

When I asked Gingrich what a victory in Georgia would say to the nation, he said, "I'm in the race to stay -- that we're going all the way to Tampa, and that Georgians who could measure me against the false advertising knew the truth and that they stuck with me."

With 76 delegates up for grabs, Georgia, not Ohio, actually has the most delegate at stake in Tuesday's primaries. Heading into them, Gingrich is third in the delegate count, behind Santorum and Romney.

"I'd say that if you're more comfortable with the establishment, and if you're more comfortable managing the decay, then you probably want to be with Mitt. If you want somebody who's a genuine Reagan conservative who's willing to break up the establishment, and who's willing to experience the level of change it took to balance the budget or to reform welfare, then you want to be with me," Gingrich said in the interview, echoing his stump speech. "I think there's a there's a percent everywhere of people, sort of the country club Republicans who get together and go 'Gee, that would be messy. I don't know if we can really do that.' I respect that."