By SHANNON McCAFFREY, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia presidential primary may not be a slam dunk for Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich, a congressman from the state for two decades. Rival Mitt Romney is signaling that the biggest prize on Super Tuesday could be up for grabs.
Romney's swing into Georgia on Wednesday had Gingrich on the defensive. After the former Massachusetts governor announced his visit, the Gingrich campaign rushed out a news release trumpeting word that Gingrich would be in Georgia for two days next week.
A win in Georgia is key to Gingrich's Southern strategy, which calls for him to rebound from five straight losses with a strong run in Dixie. His lone victory in the GOP race came in South Carolina.
"I think if he wants to continue he has got to win Georgia," former Gov. Sonny Perdue told The Associated Press. "And I think he must win fairly decisively."
Perdue, Georgia's first GOP governor since Reconstruction, had been a national co-chairman for Gingrich but dropped his support for the former House speaker last spring when top campaign aides and consultants walked out.
Ten states will vote on Super Tuesday, March 6. With 76 delegates, Georgia is the largest catch.
Romney, the third-place finisher in Georgia's 2008 presidential primary, has tapped into the deep pockets of metro Atlanta's business community. But he has yet to win an election in the Deep South and his momentum is in question after a trio of losses Tuesday. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, fresh off victories in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, was last in Georgia in the fall and has little organization. Neither does the GOP's other presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Gingrich is credited as an early architect of the Georgia's now dominant Republican Party. His campaign headquarters is in Atlanta. Unlike states where he has a meager infrastructure, he has a solid network of support here. Gov. Nathan Deal and most of the state's House delegation are behind him and are beginning assemble a grassroots operation.
Rep. Jack Kingston, a key Gingrich backer in Georgia, said he and others would be pouring money into direct mailers, robocalls and ads to assist Gingrich.
"There's a lot of ground to cover on Super Tuesday, so we want to make it was as easy as we can for him in Georgia," Kingston said.
Kingston called Gingrich the "godfather of the Republican movement" in the state and said he still has favored-son status, even though he's lived in Virginia for more than a decade.
Not everyone is sold on Gingrich as the hometown boy.
"Newt Gingrich ain't no Southerner," said Jack Stenger, a 45-year-old from Atlanta who attended Romney's rally in Atlanta on Wednesday. "I don't think people in this state, I don't think they see him as a Southerner."
Born in Pennsylvania, Gingrich moved around after his mother married an Army soldier. The family eventually settled in Columbus, Ga., and Gingrich went on to teach at West Georgia College before seeking a House seat.
Georgia has changed dramatically since he last held office in 1998. The population has risen by more than 18 percent, according to Census Bureau data. Gingrich never ran statewide in Georgia, although his suburban Atlanta district was redrawn several times, giving him a relatively sprawling base.
Gingrich relied on stalwart support from evangelical voters and social conservatives in South Carolina, and such voters will also play starring roles in a Georgia primary. Exit polls from the 2008 presidential primary in Georgia — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the winner then — found 6 in 10 GOP voters were white evangelicals and born-again Christians.
Still, Romney has a strong team in Georgia left over from his 2008 bid. His top backer in the state, Attorney General Sam Olens, said voters this year are interested less in biography than in "jobs, jobs, jobs."
"Gov. Romney is the only one with a background in private enterprise, who created jobs," Olens said. "He can absolutely win Georgia."
Romney, he said, is planning to return to Georgia for at least one more public appearance before March 6.
The true test of whether Romney makes a serious play for Georgia would come if he or any of the political action committees supporting him were to invest money in TV ads in the state. Forcing Gingrich to defend Georgia could also be a feint by Romney, a move designed to distract Gingrich from other states where he needs more time to make inroads with voters.
At his rally Wednesday in Atlanta, Romney made only a passing reference to Gingrich, noting that Gingrich and Santorum had "spent a lot of time in Washington." At the mention of Gingrich's name the crowd of several hundred booed loudly.
Outside, six people stood with small homemade signs supporting the former congressman.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, another Gingrich backer from Georgia, acknowledged that Georgia would be a fight with Santorum and Paul still in the race, peeling off conservative voters.
"I do believe Newt will win Georgia," he said, "but it will be closer than it otherwise might have been."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.