Can the Georgia Primary Relaunch Gingrich’s Campaign?

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Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista participate in a campaign rally in Peachtree City, Georgia, Feb. 17, 2012.

Ohio may be the most critical state on Super Tuesday, but Georgia carries the largest prize. The Peach State will award 76 delegates on March 6, and while his rivals crisscrossed Michigan last weekend, Newt Gingrich was preparing to use his old stomping grounds as a springboard to yet another comeback. 

There is no question that winning Georgia is a prerequisite for Gingrich’s continuing on. He has admitted as much. “I have to win Georgia, I think, to be credible in the race,” the former Speaker said Thursday morning, March 1, in Atlanta. During his month in the wilderness after a bruising defeat in Florida, Gingrich has been regrouping — collecting cash, test driving a new energy-centric message — in hopes of reviving his flagging campaign in the state where he rose to be Speaker of the House. After that, Gingrich would turn to two more Deep South states (Alabama and Mississippi) seven days later, followed shortly thereafter by Louisiana. The Southern strategy runs the risk of typecasting Gingrich as a regional candidate. “You gotta be able to go out and prove that you are electable other than in your own backyard,” Rick Santorum cautioned during his own Georgia visit on Thursday.

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Polls suggest Gingrich has a real shot, at least in Georgia. Though he’s called tony McLean, Va., his home for some time, Gingrich rose to power representing the state’s 6th Congressional District, eventually serving 10 terms, and he’s paced the field in every Georgia survey taken in the past year. That’s not to say his lead is safe. In four polls taken between Feb. 20 and Feb. 26, Gingrich led by margins of 2, 5, 13 and 15 — an average of 9 points. Polling guru Nate Silver grades the latter two surveys as more reliable and gives Gingrich an 86% shot at winning the state.

But now his rivals are arriving to begin the onslaught. Romney is a long shot in Georgia, but he dispatched his wife Ann to campaign on his behalf Thursday, and Restore Our Future, his allied super PAC, will reportedly spend $500,000 on an ad buy aimed at preventing another Newt revival. Santorum made two stops in Georgia on Thursday, telling crowds that Gingrich’s moment had faded. “Newt came in fourth in Michigan, the same thing in Wyoming,” Santorum said. “This race is narrowing down.” (A spokesman for the Red, White and Blue Fund, Santorum’s super PAC, told TIME the group had not yet purchased any television time in Georgia.)

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As he calibrates his message, the student of history would do well to take a cue from the recent past. Georgia is a religious state — the ninth most devout in the U.S., according to a recent Pew study — and faith plays a prominent role in its politics. In 2008, a postpeak Mike Huckabee edged out John McCain in the state’s primary, 36% to 33%. (Romney trailed close behind, with 30%.) Among the 3 in 10 Georgians who reported attending church more than once per week, Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, grabbed 56% of the vote, according to exit polls. Those voters carried him to victory.

As he crisscrosses Georgia, however, Gingrich has shelved social issues in favor of economic ones. With voters reeling from skyrocketing gas prices, he has stressed the need to ratchet up domestic energy production and pounded President Obama for putting the kibosh on the Keystone pipeline. By contrast, Santorum has played the culture warrior, casting himself as a leader on the issues that matter. “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,” he said.

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This forceful pitch is just one reason prominent conservatives like Karl Rove have dismissed Gingrich’s Southern strategy as unsound. Georgia, like the majority of states with March contests, awards delegates proportionally, complicating the math for a comeback. The key winner-take-all primary on Super Tuesday is Virginia, where Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot. Nor can he count on taking the lion’s share. With the exception of South Carolina, Santorum has performed better than Gingrich with Evangelical voters throughout the GOP primary, and he leads Gingrich in early polls taken in religious redoubts like Tennessee and Oklahoma. Gingrich has fallen out of the national conversation for the better part of a month, so it’s possible that a win in the Peach State could be the prelude to a national rebound. Gingrich has it right that a Georgia victory is a prerequisite for a comeback. But that doesn’t mean it would necessarily catalyze one.

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