STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the next big primaries come in Michigan and Arizona, but the candidates are looking ahead to primaries in March, including a vote in Newt Gingrich's home state of Georgia. Gingrich really needs to win that state, and Rick Santorum, among others, really wants it.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Newt Gingrich says winning Georgia on Super Tuesday is very important.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

NEWT GINGRICH: You know, how crucial is it for Mitt Romney to win Michigan? And how crucial is it going to be for Santorum to win Pennsylvania?

LOHR: Over the weekend, Gingrich held several rallies, including one in Peachtree City, south of Atlanta, where he stressed that this area has long supported him.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

GINGRICH: It is great to be home. I believe that I carried Fayette County in every single election, including the two that I lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOHR: Gingrich admitted running for the GOP nomination is a tough fight, but he says it's something he's prepared to deal with.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

GINGRICH: This has been a little bit like riding a roller coaster. In fact, I tell folks it's a little bit like the roller coaster at Disney that's in the dark. If you've ever ridden Space Mountain, you don't know what's coming next. You don't know where you were, and you're not sure where you're going.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOHR: Gingrich calls the contest a wide open race and says recent polls prove that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is not the inevitable nominee. As for Rick Santorum...

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

GINGRICH: We'll see in the next few weeks how Mr. Santorum does, but the fact is I am the only candidate in this race who has stood nose-to-nose with presidents of both parties and not flinched.

LOHR: Both Gingrich and Santorum are going after voters seeking an alternative to Romney. Sunday night, Santorum appeared at First Redeemer, a Baptist mega church north of Atlanta. It's in the heart of Gingrich's old congressional district. Even Santorum was surprised at the reception he got from thousands who crammed into the sanctuary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

RICK SANTORUM: Thank you. It's good to be here. Bless you. Thank you very much.

LOHR: Santorum didn't talk about his GOP challengers, but instead criticized Barack Obama, saying the federal government is overreaching, oppressive, and threatening religious freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SANTORUM: This is why this election here in the state of Georgia is so important. You've got the biggest delegate prize on Super Tuesday, the biggest day of this primary election. What are you going to do?

LOHR: Four years ago, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee spoke at this same church and ultimately won the Georgia primary. It's clear Santorum is hoping to capture that same religious conservative block. Many voters here are behind the former senator, like Lisa McBryant.

LISA MCBRYANT: I was really impressed. I've liked Santorum from the beginning, but hearing him speak really inspired me more.

LOHR: And what do you think about Mr. Gingrich?

MCBRYANT: I like Mr. Gingrich, but I lean more toward Santorum's conservative values.

MERLE BLACK: What Gingrich has to do is to replicate in Georgia the pattern of support that he got in South Carolina.

LOHR: Merle Black is a political science professor at Emory University, and he says to win here, the former speaker has to get the support of those who classify themselves as very conservative and somewhat conservative. And he has to regain the momentum he had in January.

BLACK: So in order for Gingrich to really do well, he'd have to kind of bring back a lot of voters that have looked at him and then looked away again. That's very, very hard in politics. So he needs a big win in Georgia in order to set off the possibility of any kind of Southern strategy.

LOHR: Gingrich also has to combat the negative ads that started running here last week, well ahead of the March 6th primary, this one paid for by the superPAC that backs Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can we risk four more years of Barack Obama? Newt Gingrich's tough talk sounds good, but Newt has tons of baggage. How will he ever beat Obama?

LOHR: Still, Gingrich has his solid backers. At the rally in Peachtree City, Ellen Rodriguez said she has known Gingrich for more than three decades.

ELLEN RODRIGUEZ: And our sons and his daughters sat on the floor and stuffed envelopes for him, so we have voted for him every time he's ever run.

LOHR: Gingrich is planning a bus trip around the state next week to attract new supporters and shore up votes from his former constituents. And while he acknowledges a loss in Georgia would be a problem, he says it won't force him out of the race.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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