Victoria Wilcox is from Peachtree City, Ga., the city about an hour south of Atlanta where Newt Gingrich is bringing his campaign Friday night.
A 57-year-old writer, Wilcox has been leaning toward Mitt Romney in the GOP presidential primary for some time, but she “definitely checked out the other candidates.”
“Being from Georgia, we certainly gave Newt another look — and then remembered all the reasons we didn’t like him,” Wilcox said in an interview last week at a Romney event in Atlanta.
Now, both Wilcox and her daughter, Jennifer Felsted, a 28-year-old full-time mom who lives in Atlanta, are both solidly in Romney’s camp.
“We’re Georgians against Newt,” Wilcox said.
If you thought Newt Gingrich had a lock on Georgia’s Super Tuesday primary, think again.
Gingrich may have trounced Romney by 12 points in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary. But Georgia isn’t South Carolina, and the results of previous years’ contests and interviews with voters at Romney’s Atlanta event last week both suggest that the former House speaker may have a tough time of it in the Peach State on March 6.
Four years ago, the Jan. 18 South Carolina Republican primary ended up being a close race between Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee; McCain took 33 percent to Huckabee’s 30 percent, with former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.) taking 16 percent. Way down in fourth place was Romney, with 15 percent.
Georgia was a different story.
The Peach Tree State’s 2008 Super Tuesday contest was a three-way race among Huckabee, McCain and Romney, all of whom broke 30 percent statewide.
Huckabee, the favorite among social conservatives, came out on top with 34 percent, dominating the central part of the state. McCain was next with 32 percent, due in large part to his dominance in eastern and western Georgia. And Romney finished a close third with 30 percent, thanks to a strong showing in the densely populated metro Atlanta area.
If Romney’s strong performance in big states is any indication (he won a sweeping 14-point victory over Gingrich in last month’s Florida primary), Georgia will likely be a more competitive race than it might seem at first glance. The Peach State saw more than 950,000 voters go to the polls in the GOP primary four years ago, compared with about 445,000 in South Carolina.
“I would say it’s a wide-open race,” said Chris Kelleher, spokesman for the state Republican Party.
Kelleher noted that “obviously Newt Gingrich has represented Georgia in Congress and has his campaign headquarters here,” but he added that several of the other GOP hopefuls, including Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), have also been active in the state.
In addition to headquartering his campaign in the state, Gingrich has the backing of Georgia’s governor, former congressman Nathan Deal (R), as well as of five of the state’s eight GOP House members. Romney, meanwhile, has won the endorsements of a slew of state and local officials, as well, including state Attorney General Sam Olens.
Despite Gingrich’s native-son status in Georgia, he has never run statewide there — and he has not represented the 6th District in Congress for more than a decade.
Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), a Gingrich supporter who had endorsed Romney in 2008, said in an interview this week that many Georgians remember fondly Gingrich’s years in Congress, the 1994 Republican Revolution and the Contract with America.
“I think people remember,” he said. “They remember well. . . . There’s just so many things going for him in respect to Georgia that the other three don’t [have], and I do believe that he will win.”
Asked whether the state is a must-win for Gingrich, whose campaign has struggled in recent weeks, Gingrey said not necessarily.
“I have thought — and I may have even publicly said at one point — that I thought it was almost a must-win state for him,” Gingrey said. “I want to back away from that a little bit, because . . . he’s actually competing for votes among Santorum and Congressman Ron Paul, Dr. Paul, for the ‘conservative’ vote. So it’s going to be tough.”
Kevin Harris, Gingrich’s southern political director, said that “there will be a little bit of a home-turf advantage for the speaker” in Georgia.
But he, too, said he expects that the Peach State “will be one of the most competitive states” for Gingrich on Super Tuesday and that Romney “will launch a vibrant effort” in the state.
One thing that helped put Gingrich over the top in South Carolina was his strong performance in a CNN debate days before the primary, during which he responded with defiance when asked by moderator John King about his extramarital affairs.
“He looked feisty,” said Wilcox, who noted that she was personally turned off by Gingrich’s performance even as she explained its impact on his fortunes in the state. “It’s the South; we like feisty people.”
This time around, Gingrich may get no such boost: CNN announced Thursday that it is canceling its planned March 1 debate in Georgia after Romney, Santorum and Paul indicated they would not participate.
On top of that, interviews with more than a dozen voters at Romney’s Atlanta rally last Wednesday suggest that some former Gingrich supporters are having second thoughts — and that many of those who now back Romney say that Santorum has become their second choice, with Gingrich dropping down to third, if he’s even on the list at all.
Some, such as Chuck Frangiamore, were not on Gingrich’s side to begin with.
“He’s just too strange,” Frangiamore, a 66-year-old retiree from Atlanta, said of Gingrich. “He’s very intelligent; very strange. Being a Georgia resident for 40 years, you begin to learn about Newt. There’s a lot of people in D.C. I hear don’t want to work with him, and that’s not how you get things done in D.C.”
Others, such as Chuck Peterson, 70, and his wife, Judy, 66, both real estate investors from McDonough, said they had supported Gingrich in the past.
“Gingrich, he did a great job, and I was for Gingrich,” said Chuck Peterson, who is now backing Romney. “But when I look at it, he’s only fought for [policies], he didn’t implement them. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton implemented them, but not Gingrich.”
Asked about her switch from Gingrich to Romney, Judy Peterson said she changed her mind “when Gingrich got nasty.”
“He’s like a crybaby,” she said. “I was for Gingrich, because I didn’t know that much about Romney. But Gingrich seems to be a spoiler — a personal spoiler. He’s got to pollute the field for anyone, unless he gets his way. That’s kind of my feeling.”
Frederick Axelson, a 68-year-old flower-shop owner from Piedmont Heights, was in the crowd cheering on Romney at the Atlanta rally while his wife, Patricia, sat onstage behind the candidate.
“Newt Gingrich, of course, being from very close to here, we were sort of kind of lukewarm,” Axelson said of his initial feelings about Gingrich in the race. “But now there’s no question.”
Why did he change his mind?
“Well, it was kind of a backlash really — I started feeling, and I’ve always kind of felt this in the back of my head, that Newt Gingrich, he’s abrasive — in my opinion, of course,” Axelson said. “And then I started listening to Mitt Romney more carefully. . . . He just seems to fit into what we need in the country at this point.”
Bob Christensen, a software developer from Lawrenceville, said that Newt “showed great leadership in building the Contract with America — he’s a great ideas guy — but his leadership totally failed after they got in and two years, four years later.”
“Now the guys who’re on his team don’t respect him; they’re not playing with him,” said Christensen, 65. “If Newt had kept those guys and been a team leader, he’d be a lot stronger candidate today.”
For some who switched from Romney to Gingrich, the decision hinged on his personal life in particular.
“I thought about Newt, actually, when I didn’t think he had a chance,” said Misty Hope, a 32-year-old student and mother from John’s Creek. “He was willing to be more honest in the debates. He was speaking out, pulling the whole group together. And I really liked that.”
But then, she said, she started to reflect on Gingrich’s “personal ethics as well as in different situations that he’s been in where he’s worked . . . and he cheated on his wives.”
“Those things all come together,” she said. “And okay, you can do one mess-up; you keep doing it, and that’s who you are.”
Andrea Clark, a 36-year-old student and mother from Cartersville who attended the rally with Hope, agreed.
“If you have that little disregard for your family, then you’re not going to have more respect for your country than you do your family,” she said.
Several of those who attended the Romney rally noted that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the Massachusetts governor in Georgia may be the same one he has faced in the past — voters’ attitudes to his Mormon faith. And there is, of course, the fact that Romney has his roots in two northern states, not in the South.
“He talks too fast,” Axelson, a Romney supporter, said of the candidate, laughing. “That’s his problem. I just talked to a cousin of mine, and he said, ‘Mitt has got to slow down a little bit!’ ”
It will be worth watching, when Gingrich and Santorum visit Georgia this weekend, how many of their supporters have ruled out backing Romney. But one of the more surprising revelations at Romney’s Atlanta event was that many supporters of the former Massachusetts governor have strong feelings about a potential Gingrich presidency.
“[Gingrich] talks about Mitt being not conservative enough,” Wilcox said. “But Newt’s behavior isn’t conservative enough for a lot of southerners. . . . If Newt Gingrich had looked like he was going to win the nomination, that would be a really hard vote for me — between immoral Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama.”