Georgia A Proving Ground For Gingrich

Georgia holds the biggest delegate prize next week on Super Tuesday. It's also a critical test for the candidacy of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who represented a Georgia Congressional district for two decades.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Super Tuesday is just four days away and, of all the states voting that day, Georgia has the most delegates at stake. Georgia is Newt Gingrich's adopted home state where he represented the 6th Congressional District for 20 years.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports that Gingrich has spent much of the week in Georgia because he knows it is crucial for him to win there.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Gingrich's bus tour stopped in Rome, Georgia, up north and in Savannah on the eastern side of the state, but the former speaker is perhaps most at home in Cobb County in the Atlanta suburbs, where he lambasted his GOP opponents.

NEWT GINGRICH: I mean, one's Massachusetts moderate baloney and the other's Pennsylvania big labor baloney, but they're baloney. You know, they're not going to fundamentally change Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LOHR: Speaking to a business crowd, Gingrich said winning here on Super Tuesday is key.

GINGRICH: I have to win Georgia, I think, to be credible in the race. But if I win Georgia, the following week we go to Alabama and Mississippi. I think I'll win both of those.

LOHR: In fact, the superPAC supporting Gingrich has already spent more than $1 million on advertising in those two states and nearly $2 million on TV and radio ads in Georgia. That's according to an NPR analysis of federal election filings.

While the former speaker himself is hitting his message hard in Georgia, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum didn't mention Gingrich at a stop in Atlanta. Instead, Santorum targeted Mitt Romney for not being a true conservative.

RICK SANTORUM: Ladies and gentlemen, you want someone who, at their core, believes and is willing to step up and fight, not put these issues on the back burner.

LOHR: Santorum highlighted Romney's recent comments on an amendment which would have allowed insurance companies to opt out of providing contraceptives or other treatment if they have a moral objection. During one interview, Romney said he opposed the measure. Later, the former Massachusetts governor said he misunderstood. Still, Santorum pounced.

SANTORUM: But I'll tell you, if I was asked a question like that, my gut reaction would be, always, my gut reaction would be, you stand for the First Amendment. You stand for freedom of religion. You stand for the First Amendment rights.

LOHR: Santorum and Gingrich are fighting for the same conservative voters, but the business community here has largely backed Romney. At a Gingrich campaign event this week, some who like the former speaker say they're still undecided.

Katrina Kaiser works in regional sales at a credit union.

KATRINA KAISER: Either way, I'm hopeful that either Newt or Romney, that we'll have one of those two.

LOHR: That may be a problem for the Gingrich campaign with you saying that.

KAISER: I know. I know it is, but I am a Republican, so that's where my vote's going to go. You know, a lot of people I know are still on the fence, so...

LOHR: And longtime Gingrich supporter Gail Holman(ph) says she knows her candidate has an uphill battle.

GAIL HOLMAN: I just don't know that he's got enough force at this point and I'm not sure his money's going to last. And we all know that money is the necessary evil we've got to have to win elections.

LOHR: After wins in Arizona and Michigan, Mitt Romney did not stop in Georgia this week, but sent his wife Ann to the Smoke Jack Restaurant, a barbecue place in the Atlanta suburbs that was jam-packed with an overflow crowd outside.

Ann Romney said the campaign is not conceding Georgia, but fighting for every vote.

ANN ROMNEY: And it's a big day on Tuesday and we are hoping that people will figure out that Mitt's message is an economic message, that he is the right person at the right time to turn this country around and to turn this economy around.

LOHR: The latest polls show Gingrich is leading in Georgia, but far behind Romney and Santorum in national polls and in other Super Tuesday contests.

ALAN ABRAMOWITZ: Gingrich has put almost all of his marbles right now on Georgia.

LOHR: Alan Abramowitz is a political science professor at Emery University.

ABRAMOWITZ: The reality is that if Gingrich loses in Georgia or even if he wins in Georgia and nowhere else and does poorly in the other Southern primaries, I think he's going to have to rethink his campaign.

LOHR: To rally support, Gingrich has continued to focus on beating President Obama and on his plan to reduce gas prices. When a voter asked the former speaker what he'd do if he did lose his home state, Gingrich said...

GINGRICH: I'm counting on all of my many friends to make sure I don't lose Georgia.

LOHR: In a sign of Gingrich's confidence in his lead here, the former speaker will campaign this weekend in Ohio, another important Super Tuesday state. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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