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Gingrich Makes Last Stand in Must-Win Georgia as Hopes Sputter

Campaigning across his adopted home state of Georgia, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich this week promised $2.50 gasoline, lambasted President Barack Obama and excoriated Iran in a last-ditch push for a presidential primary victory in a place he represented for 20 years.

Traveling from hangar to gymnasium to Statehouse, and buoyed by a fresh infusion of super-PAC cash from billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich predicted a rout on March 6, when 11 states hold primaries. He told the Associated Press yesterday that he will win Georgia, which has more delegates at stake than any other Super Tuesday state, “and win it decisively.”

He had better, said Merle Black, who teaches Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

“Georgia is absolutely critical to the Gingrich campaign,” Black said in a telephone interview. Gingrich is “the only candidate who has spent a lot of time actively campaigning here. He needs a big, big victory here. He won’t advance his cause with a two-point victory. He needs something in the double digits.”

Gingrich, 68, had a rocky start to his run after advisers abandoned him. Then, as Republican voters cast about for alternatives to Mitt Romney, he soared, taking South Carolina’s primary on Jan. 21. Since Romney unleashed advertisements attacking Gingrich’s ethics and the $1.6 million he got for advising Freddie Mac, which many Republicans blame for enabling the housing bubble, Gingrich faded -- except in Georgia.

Staying Alive

Polls show him ahead there, although not as far as he once was. Real Clear Politics, a website that synthesizes polls, gave Gingrich a nine-point lead over his closest rival, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, in surveys conducted between Feb. 20 and Feb. 26.

One December poll, by InsiderAdvantage Georgia, had Gingrich topping second-place Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, by 42 percentage points. A Feb. 20 report by the same organization found his lead at two percentage points, in a three-way statistical tie with both men.

“I really think Newt will win Georgia,” said Erick Erickson of Macon, author of the blog Red State, which bills itself as the right’s most influential grassroots voice. “I think Santorum will do better than expected, but he won’t beat Gingrich. My question now is whether that’s the only state he wins next week, which won’t be enough.”

Gone For Years

Gingrich, a Pennsylvania native and former West Georgia College history professor, has disadvantages in the state.

Although he represented two districts between 1979 and 1999, he hasn’t lived in Georgia since leaving office. The former speaker has been based in Washington, where he ran the Gingrich Group, a consulting company, and the Center for Health Transformation, among other businesses.

The thrice-married politician’s marital difficulties played prominently in state news in the 1990s, said Tim Echols, an evangelical Christian and Santorum backer who is the elected chairman of Georgia’s Public Service Commission.

“The values vote is definitely with Santorum,” Echols said in a phone interview. “Many evangelicals still hold the infidelity against him. They have not forgiven him that.”

Those drawbacks may be balanced by a long history and high name recognition: Metropolitan Atlanta, part of which he represented, contains half of Georgia’s population of about 9.7 million.

Knowing Newt

“I’ve always liked him,” said Sue Dillard, 71, of Lilburn in suburban Atlanta, at a Feb. 18 Gingrich rally. “I liked him when he was in the House, and I liked this and I liked all his debates. He’s the only one that talks like he knows what he’s doing.”

Chuck Clay, an Atlanta-area lawyer prominent in state Republican politics, said Gingrich shouldn’t be underestimated. “People know him, and that’s an enormous advantage that other people have to pay to buy,” he said.

Gingrich is also popular with rank-and-file state Republicans, because of his role building the party, Erickson said. Dozens of public officials and Republican stalwarts flanked Governor Nathan Deal on the Statehouse steps in December, when he held a press conference urging Georgians to back Gingrich.

Remembering the Locals

In 1979, when Gingrich won his first congressional seat, he was the state’s only Republican congressman. The party didn’t win a statewide office until 13 years later. Even as Gingrich ascended in the House of Representatives, he remained supportive at the local level, said Mark Rountree, a political consultant in Alpharetta.

An example is framed on Rountree’s office wall at Landmark Communications Inc., he said. It’s a handwritten note from 1993, when Gingrich was the House minority whip. The note congratulates Rountree on winning an obscure, weekly award from a local politics television show.

“That’s the level of attention he paid,” Rountree said. “For years, he built and built and built.”

Rountree said Gingrich must hold off Romney in metro Atlanta and Santorum in the rest of the state to win.

A Romney super-PAC bought about $1.1 million in media ads in Georgia, including about $400,000 in metro Atlanta, said Christa West of MAXWest Media of Atlanta, a research company. She described it as a “reasonably aggressive buy.”

The Winning Our Future super PAC backing Gingrich purchased almost $900,000 in radio advertisements in six states scheduled to hold primaries in the next two weeks, according to a person close to the committee who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A Feb. 23 poll by Rountree’s firm showed a 15 percent lead for Gingrich on Feb. 23, that Romney was gaining ground in metro Atlanta and that a Santorum surge in the rest of the state had leveled.

Sideshow State

Black, the Emory professor, and Clay, the Republican lawyer, said neither Romney nor Santorum appear to be trying all that hard to wrest Georgia from Gingrich.

“I have not yet seen an overwhelming investment of Romney dollars or Santorum time,” Clay said.

Black said Santorum and Romney are rightly concentrating on Ohio’s Super Tuesday race, and may cede Georgia.

“On March 6, the headline is going to be Ohio,” he said. “At this point Gingrich is a sideshow. If he wins Georgia, and Tennessee and Oklahoma on March 6, then he might be back in the game.”

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