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Gingrich chides Romney, Santorum for skipping Ga. debate

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PEACHTREE CITY, Ga.— Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) returned to friendly territory Friday night, where he chided two of his Republican presidential rivals for declining to debate him in the state.

Shortly before Gingrich came out to speak to a crowd of a few hundred reporters in a brightly festooned airport hangar, two volunteers dressed as chickens took the stage to mock former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for skipping a debate that had been scheduled to take place in Atlanta. One, wearing a Romney shirt, held aloft a sign declaring, “I’m Chicken to Debate Newt,” while the other waved a poster with the words, “76 Delegates but Mitt and Rick don’t want them?”

The candidates will face off against each other in a debate Tuesday in Mesa, Ariz.

Gingrich stood on stage with his wife, Callista, as well as his daughter Jackie, her husband Jimmy and their two children, Maggie and Robert. Gingrich, who has repeatedly referred to his two grandchildren as his “debate coaches,” told the crowd, “You can imagine they were both very disappointed to see the chicken show up on stage tonight.”

“If you’re afraid to debate Newt Gingrich, you sure can’t debate Barack Obama,” he continued. “I’m going to ask them to reconsider and come to Georgia. It will be just fine. We will be hospitable.”

Gingrich made clear he viewed a win here next month as critical in staging a comeback. “The primary in Georgia is very important, and I need your help,” he told the crowd.

“You got it!” a man shouted in response.

“When we win Super Tuesday, we’ll be back in the game,” Gingrich assured his supporters.

Many in the crowd knew the former speaker personally and expressed optimism that his candidacy would rebound yet again.

“I’ve known Newt for years,” said Ann Merkl, a resident of nearby Newnan. “I haven’t seen him in a long time, but I haven’t lost my affection.”

Lanny Bostwick, who lives in Carrollton, Ga., attended West Georgia College there when Gingrich was teaching on campus in the 1970s. He said Gingrich has proven he can defy entrenched political interests in Washington.

“He’s got the backbone to stand up to the establishment,” Bostwick said. When asked whether Santorum would be equally deft in challenging the establishment, he replied, “Well, Newt has proved it.”

In a news conference after the event, Gingrich acknowledged that winning the state represented a “critical” test for his candidacy.

“It’s very important for me to win Georgia,” he said. “Our goal is to win Georgia.”

But the former speaker couldn’t help tweaking Romney in the next sentence, alluding to the fact that the Michigan native was locked in a tight battle with Santorum in Romney’s home state. “How critical is it for Romney to win Michigan?” he asked.

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