COLUMBIA, S.C. — If you’ve prayed and pined for the 2012 race for president to come to Georgia, send a dozen roses to Juan Williams over at Fox News. Or John King at CNN.
They just made it happen.
Firing up South Carolina voters with explosive media-bashing performances in two nationally televised debates this week, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich on Saturday dashed Mitt Romney’s chances of putting a quick end to the race for the Republican nomination.
By doing so, the revived former U.S. House speaker has ensured that, in the next four weeks or so, TV sets in metro Atlanta and beyond will be saturated with the same calm, philosophic conversations that have graced living rooms in Iowa, New Hampshire, and – until 12 hours ago — this first-in-the-South primary state.
So batten down the hatches.
The Republican field still must survive a Jan. 31 primary in Florida, followed by a scattering of seven states from Michigan to Nevada to Washington. But, presuming that Gingrich and Rick Santorum perform well in Florida, the other contests are unlikely to have the gravitas to weed the field any further.
Which brings us to the 11-state, March 6 contest known as Super Tuesday. Texas, with its 155 delegates, has abandoned the date, making Georgia and its 76 delegates the largest prize of the evening. Virginia, by excluding all other candidates but Romney and Ron Paul from its Republican ballot, shrinks the contest even more.
If you are Newt Gingrich, you have spent the last year lobbying Georgia’s political leadership, from Gov. Nathan Deal down, to recognize your 20 years as a congressman from the state – a favorite son playing in his own sandbox. A televised debate is already in the works.
A spokesman for Deal says the governor is willing to do whatever Gingrich might demand of him. So far, that’s been limited to a single photo op with other state Capitol supporters.
“The Georgia campaign is getting well-organized,” said B.J. VanGundy, another GOP activist in South Carolina for Gingrich. The “getting” part of that statement might give some Newtsters heartburn. Since its inception, the Gingrich campaign has had the rhythm – catchy yet unpredictable — of a spontaneous jazz ensemble.
But if you are the methodical Mitt Romney, who marches to a John Philip Sousa beat, Georgia offers another opportunity. What better place than Gingrich’s symbolic home (he’s been a Virginia resident for the last decade) to put a stake through the heart of a rival who has resurrected himself more times than Bela Lugosi?
Under no circumstances is Romney willing to concede Georgia, said Eric Tanenblatt, the former Massachusetts governor’s top advocate in Georgia – as he headed toward South Carolina on Saturday.
“We’ve always planned for it to be a marathon,” Tanenblatt said. As polls showed Romney’s lead evaporating on Friday, his campaign issued yet another press release – this one touting the newly won support of state Labor Commissioner Mark Butler and 11 state legislators from Georgia. (Attorney General Sam Olens is already on board.)
It wasn’t advertised at the time, but during a November fundraising visit to Atlanta, Romney paid a state Capitol visit to the non-aligned House speaker, David Ralston, a spokesman for Ralston confirmed Saturday – adding that Gingrich has telephoned as well in the last few weeks.
Romney will be in Atlanta again on Feb. 8.
So what about the other presidential candidates? Ron Paul has let it be known that he will largely skip Florida in order to focus on Nevada and Minnesota. Georgia may be more hospitable to Paul than South Carolina, but only slightly so.
As for whether Santorum, the belated winner of the Iowa caucuses, has a future in Georgia – that brings us back to Gingrich and last week’s two extraordinary debates.
In the first, Williams of Fox News asked the former Georgia congressman why black people shouldn’t think themselves insulted by his comments about the roots of poverty. Gingrich’s dismissal brought him a standing ovation in Myrtle Beach.
The debate in Charleston opened with a question from CNN’s King: Would Gingrich like to respond to his ex-wife Marianne Gingrich’s allegation that he once sought an “open” marriage? Gingrich’s glowering reply brought Ovation No. 2 – 36 hours before South Carolina polls opened.
On Saturday, exit polls show that Gingrich won a majority of the evangelical vote in South Carolina on Saturday. But religious conservatives never had a chance to digest Marianne Gingrich’s accusations, said Tim Echols, chairman of the state Public Service Commission and Santorum’s top supporter in Georgia. Things might be different in Florida and beyond, he said.
“I believe he had a genuine conversion, and I believe he’s sincere,” Echols said. “Yes, we should forgive him. But that doesn’t mean that he’s the best candidate for president of the United States and that we should reward him.”
That said, short of a major backlash among church-goers, Echols said he would advise his candidate to bet on other, smaller states — if he survives until Super Tuesday. “If you’re Santorum and you have limited resources, I wouldn’t spend them in Georgia,” Echols said. “I would do the free ground game there, and I would take my money into other media markets.”
In other words, Georgia could become a two-man confrontation. Gingrich and Romney, mano a mano. You can already hear the chink! of spurs on Peachtree Street.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider