DALTON, Ga. — While Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum flew to Washington state ahead of its Republican presidential caucuses Saturday, Newt Gingrich tended to business in his old stomping ground of Georgia.
Gingrich represented Atlanta suburbs in the House of Representatives for 20 years, ending in 1999. His business these days is trying to keep his presidential campaign alive in what's been shaping up lately as a two-man race for the Republican nomination that doesn't include him.
"I have to win Georgia, I think, to be credible in the race," Gingrich candidly told the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning. "But if I win Georgia, the following week we go to Alabama and Mississippi, and I think I'll win both of those and we have a good opportunity to win Kansas," which votes March 10.
Gingrich is pinning his hopes for a third comeback in this primary cycle on a Southern strategy. His only victory so far came in South Carolina. His camp thinks that winning Georgia on Tuesday could slingshot him to Southern victories the following Tuesday in Mississippi and Alabama, and they in turn could serve as a springboard into later contests in delegate-rich Texas and elsewhere.
Gingrich leads in Georgia by 9 percentage points, according to an average of recent state polls compiled by the website RealClearPolitics.
"He needs to win by a large margin to show he's back in the ballgame," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Atlanta's Emory University. "Georgia's just one state, but he'll have to win here and do well in other Southern states."
Fighting for his political life, Gingrich came out roaring in Cobb County, calling former Massachusetts Gov. Romney "Massachusetts moderate baloney" and former Pennsylvania Sen. U.S. Santorum "Pennsylvania big labor baloney."
"They're not going to fundamentally change Washington," said Gingrich, who's been campaigning aggressively in north Georgia and Atlanta's exurbs.
That doesn't mean the other candidates are conceding the state, which will award 76 delegates, the most of any Super Tuesday state.
In neighboring Tennessee, which also votes Tuesday, for 58 delegates, Santorum leads polls by a commanding 19.5 point average, according to RealClearPolitics.
On Thursday, Santorum rolled out of Tennessee and into Dalton, Ga., a town of 27,912 that bills itself as "The Carpet Capital of the World." He arrived 48 hours after Gingrich was there.
Santorum called it a two-man race and devoted most of his time to attacking Romney and President Barack Obama on health care. He also touted his social conservative record in Congress, and said he led on those issues as did none of his opponents.
"Unlike anybody else in this race, I've led the charge," he said. "It's one thing to be pro-life, pro-family, pro-marriage, taking on the issues of faith and freedom in our country, the core values of life. It's one thing to vote that way. It's another thing to stand up and fight and lead on those issues."
Romney hasn't been in Tennessee or Georgia all week; analyst Black said Romney "may not be red-meat enough" to do well in Georgia and Tennessee.
Instead, Romney is focusing this week on Ohio, Washington state and North Dakota, where he blasted Obama's energy policies Thursday.
"He has tried ... to slow the growth of oil production in this country," Romney said at a rally in frigid, snow-covered Fargo, N.D. "Far from taking credit, he should be hanging his head and taking a little bit of the blame for what's going on today."
North Dakota was a curious place for that line of attack, as it's enjoying an oil boom that's given it the nation's lowest unemployment rate, 3.3 percent.
As Santorum and Gingrich appeal to tea party, Christian and evangelical supporters in the South, the former Pennsylvania senator thus far hasn't been attacking Gingrich directly. He even paid homage to his sharp-tongued rival, who described him as a political "junior partner" in January.
"I even give credit to Speaker Gingrich, when I was thinking of running for the House of Representatives, as the great educator he is," Santorum said at a rally Wednesday outside of Knoxville, Tenn. "It was important for me to understand who we are. Reagan did a lot of that education, and I give Newt credit for doing a lot more."
Several Georgia Republican voters said they watched with pride as Gingrich rose from a back-bencher in the GOP minority to speaker of the House of Representatives and that they wanted to see their hometown boy do well.
At the same time, some Gingrich supporters wonder whether he'd be viable in November.
"We really like Newt. He's strong and he's got great ideas," said Jaynel Hankins, 72, of Dalton. "But he's a little abrasive, a little gruff, so Santorum might be a good alternative."
Mark Gilstrap, a 53-year-old Dalton furniture store owner, likes Gingrich, too, but he's also unsure that he's the right choice.
"I supported Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, then Gingrich, then Santorum, then Gingrich again," Gilstrap said. "My inclination is to go with the home team. We need to replace the current president, and I'm looking for someone who can do that. Newt has high negatives all over the country outside of the South. I absolutely have a case of political whiplash."
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