DALTON, Ga. — Newt Gingrich is looking ahead to Super Tuesday no longer positioned as the leading alternative to Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential race. That slipped away after he lost Florida more than a month ago. He no longer promises to sweep the three Southern states with primaries on Tuesday — not with Rick Santorum in the mix.
Third in the polls and long removed from his lone triumph in South Carolina, Gingrich now only predicts that he will win Georgia — where the former House speaker has spent the last week trying to rekindle old connections and revive his campaign in the state that launched his political career.
“Just to be clear: I have to win Georgia, I think, to be credible in the race,” Gingrich told the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce over breakfast on Thursday. Lowering expectations further still, he promised to reclaim momentum not on Tuesday but by June, on the strength of hoped-for wins in Texas and California.
Gingrich has watched the landscape shift dramatically around him since early February, when Santorum’s surprise sweep of contests in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado turned the former Pennsylvania senator into the leading alternative to Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and long-presumed front-runner.
Gingrich has tried to reconnect to the moment but mostly has instead managed to expose the inconsistencies in his campaign.
First he declared that Santorum should drop out to clear the way for him to take on Romney in a one-on-one race. Then his campaign said his goal was to push Romney out of the race so he could take on Santorum.
He announced that he would not contest last week’s Michigan primary, then said he would before placing a distant third. He promised to compete in all the Southern states on Super Tuesday before devoting nearly all of last week to Georgia — the one state he was supposed to be able to win easily.
Asked by a supporter what his path to victory is, Gingrich replied: “My goal is to come to a place sometime in the next two months, [where] people will come to say, ‘You know, he has the right values, he has the right ideas, he has the right vision, and he can beat Obama and the others can’t.’ You’ll see a lot of delegates switch very rapidly.”
Gingrich deflected a series of questions on the Sunday talks shows about calls from supporters of Santorum for him to leave the race. Gingrich insisted that there is still a path for him to win the nomination. On ABC’s “This Week,” he took shots at both Santorum and Romney, calling Romney “not a very convincing front-runner” and Santorum “a labor union senator from Pennsylvania.”
“I’ll win Georgia by a much, much bigger margin than Romney won Michigan,” Gingrich said. “We’re going to go on. We’re competing in Tennessee, in Ohio, in Oklahoma, in a number of other states. We’ll pick up delegates in a number of places. Then I think the following week, we’re going to win Alabama and Mississippi, and we’re going to be very competitive in Kansas.”
For now, Gingrich is home. Campaigning here has given him the chance to recount memories of his early years as a college professor, a candidate, a congressman. And he has made the case, in the same big-idea speaking style that propelled him to Washington in 1979 and the speakership in 1995, that his political future holds the same possibility today as it did then.
“I first came here as a candidate in 1974,” Gingrich said last week at the Georgia Capitol. “I ran and lost. I came back in 1976. I ran and lost. I came back for a third time in 1978, with the help of a number of people standing here, and I won. Coming back here is a reminder, a little bit of a lesson on why I find cheerful persistence to be a useful trait.”
Gingrich’s support is deep here, with several polls giving him a double-digit lead over Santorum and Romney. His appeal among conservatives was on full display at several of his appearances, the crowds hooting and cheering, laughing and clapping.
“He’s the only one who makes any sense,” said Eleanor Smith, 73, part of a group called Grannies for Newt who turned out to hear Gingrich at a rally in Covington. “He’s a statesman. He knows history. We like him because he speaks the truth. He’s not scared of the truth.”
“Let me start with why I really think we can solve our problems,” Gingrich told a crowd in Gainesville, launching into an address that touched on the Iranian nuclear threat, the “radical” bureaucracy of the Obama administration and a promise to bring the price of gas below $2.50 a gallon.
“We should be enraged” that Pakistan went after those who helped the United States find Osama bin Laden rather than those who helped shelter him, Gingrich said. “The United States is so passive” for apologizing to Afghanistan over the recent burning of copies of the Koran by the U.S. military. And “the greatest threat” to the nation right now is the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a U.S. city.
“I’m reasonably informed about these things,” Gingrich said.
Then he noticed a sign in the audience: “Newt = Substance.”
“I like that,” he said, prompting laughter.
Yet even in Georgia, much has changed since the late 1990s, when Gingrich last represented the state’s Sixth Congressional District.
In Carrollton, home of the University of West Georgia, where Gingrich taught history and geography before he was elected to Congress in the 1970s, Gingrich found a different place from the one he left.
Gingrich delivered a long speech in a shiny, modern campus center, outfitted with a cavernous fitness facility and rock-climbing wall, that didn’t exist in Gingrich’s day. Gingrich told the audience that he had probably taught not only some of their parents but also their grandparents. Even the name of the school, known as West Georgia College in Gingrich’s day, had changed.
Gingrich recited the names of old friends, including one former colleague “who thought he knew everything.” He told a 10-minute story about helping the colleague take a giant tree down in an ill-fated endeavor that ended with the tree on the colleague’s house — and a none-too-happy wife.
“There were a thousand things like that that you could do, and you could learn from, and you could make friends that became permanent friends,” Gingrich said. “I have to confess: I was in Kiwanis at the time, and I’d go around giving speeches for Kiwanis, and the number of people who liked me because I was willing to admit I wasn’t really that smart — everybody has done something in their life where you can look back and say, ‘Boy, that was not really very clever.’ ”
He was harking back to the glory days, but his point was unclear. Was he trying to make a pitch to the everyman? Was he drawing a metaphor for the mistakes of his campaign?
Many of the students in the room were unwilling to stick around to find out. There only because they had to be — they were fulfilling an extra-credit requirement for a government class — a number of them wandered off before Gingrich had finished.