SNELLVILLE, Ga. — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich dismissed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney Sunday as a "not very convincing frontrunner" and challenged former Sen. Rick Santorum's conservative credentials ahead of Tuesday's 10-state Super Tuesday Republican presidential primary.
As Romney waged a quick campaign tour through Gingrich's Georgia backyard and Tennessee, Gingrich appeared on four Sunday news shows to proclaim that he's still a viable candidate and try to dispel the notion that the quest for the GOP nomination has boiled down to a race between Romney and Santorum.
"This is going to go on for a good while," Gingrich said on ABC's "This Week." "Gov. Romney, who's outspent all the rest of us by multitudes, is a front-runner, without question, but I think he's not a very convincing front-runner, and he's a long way from having closed out this race."
As for Santorum, Gingrich predicted that the former Pennsylvania senator's campaign will suffer once it moves beyond Ohio, another Super Tuesday state. Santorum and Romney are in a statistical dead heat in Ohio, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll.
"Santorum has been historically a labor union senator from Pennsylvania," Gingrich told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "... And when you get him out of the industrial states, I think it gets tougher for Rick to put together a majority, so we'll see how it goes after next Tuesday."
Santorum, appearing on "Fox News Sunday, said that he and Gingrich are vying for the same pool of conservative voters but stopped short of calling on Gingrich to drop out.
"We have the anti-Romney vote, if you will. Both Gingrich and I are slugging away," Santorum said. "As you know, it's always harder when you get two conservative candidates to go head-to-head. And if you look at all the races, it's Gov. Romney and me" usually finishing first or second.
After staying out of Georgia and Tennessee all last week, Romney arrived Sunday in suburban Atlanta's Snellville, Ga., where he and wife Ann helped serve pancakes to supporters in a packed high school common room.
He avoided attacking his Republican rivals directly and criticized President Barack Obama's handling of the economy and the Middle East. He warned that if Obama is re-elected Iran will get a nuclear weapon.
However, while trumpeting his own business credentials, Romney took a veiled dig at Gingrich and Santorum.
"It's critical that we nominate someone who understands the economy, who has credibility when it comes to the economy, not someone who can just spout the words that they've read," he said in Snellville.
But Gingrich was buoyed Sunday by a Georgia Newspaper Partnership poll that showed him with a commanding lead over his Republican rivals in the Peach State. Thirty-eight percent of likely Republican supported Gingrich, 24 percent backed Romney, 22 percent supported Santorum, and 3 percent were for Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. Twelve percent of Republican voters said they were undecided.
However, the poll also revealed lingering doubts about Gingrich's overall electability among voters in a state he represented in the House of Representatives for 20 years.
Thirty-nine percent of the state's likely Republican voters said they thought that Romney stands the best chance of defeating President Barak Obama in November while only 30 percent chose Gingrich and 12 percent selected Santorum.
Tennessee state Sen. Stacey Campfield, co-chair of Gingrich's Tennessee campaign, also expressed concerns about the former speaker's viability and defected to Santorum's campaign late Saturday.
"I like Newt and I think he's a great leader," Campfield told The Knoxville News Sentinel. "But I don't think it's his time, and I think he won't do what is necessary to win this election ... I think Rick Santorum is the best chance we can get to have a conservative president."
Gingrich is banking on Georgia, Tennessee and other Southern states to provide his campaign with the third comeback of this election season.
Gingrich's White House aspirations appeared doomed when key members of his campaign staff quit in protest of Gingrich taking a two-week Mediterranean vacation shortly after announcing his candidacy last year.
Light on campaign funds and lacking a traditional organization, Gingrich pressed on and attracted supporters through his performance in televised presidential debates.
After disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire — where Romney's campaign and supporting political action committees launched a torrent of ads against his rivals — Gingrich scored a decisive victory in South Carolina's primary.
But following Romney's narrow victory in Michigan last week, the race has taken on the flavor of a two-man contest between the former Massachusetts governor and Santorum.
Seeking to remain a viable, Gingrich has employed a Southern strategy in which he has campaigned almost exclusively in Georgia leading to Super Tuesday.
He's hoping to do well in Tennessee, where Santorum and Romney are statistically tied in a Rasmussen poll released Sunday, and win primaries in Alabama and Mississippi next week. Victories there could keep him afloat politically for later contests in delegate-rich Texas and elsewhere.
Romney, meanwhile, is hoping to show well in Georgia and Tennessee. Several political analysts largely view Southern states, with their rock-solid conservatism and large Christian and evangelical populations, as political kryptonite for Romney.
Brad Coker, managing director of the Mason Dixon Polling & Research which conducted the Georgia poll, said Romney's last-minute foray into the Super Tuesday Southern states is an effort by Romney to secure second-place finishes behind Gingrich in Georgia and Santorum in Tennessee.
Romney campaign officials told reporters last week that they see opportunities in congressional districts in downtown Atlanta and its nearby suburbs, in eastern Tennessee and around Nashville.
"His CEO credentials might actually pay dividends in Memphis and Nashville," Coker said. "Georgia's Fulton County has a lot of those types of voters, north and south of Atlanta. If he can come in late and target natural constituencies, that could work."
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