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Gingrich mines for votes in the South to break back into race

By William Douglas and David Lightman, McClatchy Newspapers –

DALTON, Ga. — While Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum flew to Washington state ahead of its Republican presidential caucuses Saturday, Newt Gingrich tended to business in his old stomping ground of Georgia.

Gingrich represented Atlanta suburbs in the House of Representatives for 20 years, ending in 1999. His business these days is trying to keep his presidential campaign alive in what’s been shaping up lately as a two-man race for the Republican nomination that doesn’t include him.

“I have to win Georgia, I think, to be credible in the race,” Gingrich candidly told the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning. “But if I win Georgia, the following week we go to Alabama and Mississippi, and I think I’ll win both of those and we have a good opportunity to win Kansas,” which votes March 10.

Gingrich is pinning his hopes for a third comeback in this primary cycle on Southern states. His only victory so far came in South Carolina. His camp thinks that winning Georgia on Tuesday could propel him to victories the following Tuesday in Mississippi and Alabama, and they in turn could serve as a springboard into later contests in delegate-rich Texas and elsewhere.

Gingrich leads in Georgia by 9 percentage points, according to an average of recent state polls compiled by the website RealClearPolitics.

“He needs to win by a large margin to show he’s back in the ballgame,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Atlanta’s Emory University. “Georgia’s just one state, but he’ll have to win here and do well in other Southern states.”

Fighting for his political life, Gingrich came out roaring in Cobb County, calling former Massachusetts Gov. Romney “Massachusetts moderate baloney” and former Pennsylvania Sen. U.S. Santorum “Pennsylvania big labor baloney.”

“They’re not going to fundamentally change Washington,” said Gingrich, who’s been campaigning aggressively in north Georgia and Atlanta’s exurbs.

That doesn’t mean the other candidates are conceding the state, which will award 76 delegates, the most of any Super Tuesday state.

In neighboring Tennessee, which also votes Tuesday, for 58 delegates, Santorum leads polls by a commanding 19.5 point average, according to RealClearPolitics.

On Thursday, Santorum rolled out of Tennessee and into Dalton, Ga., a town of 27,912 that bills itself as “The Carpet Capital of the World.” He arrived 48 hours after Gingrich was there.

Santorum called it a two-man race and devoted most of his time to attacking Romney and President Barack Obama on health care. He also touted his social conservative record in Congress, and said he led on those issues as did none of his opponents.

“Unlike anybody else in this race, I’ve led the charge,” he said. “It’s one thing to be pro-life, pro-family, pro-marriage, taking on the issues of faith and freedom in our country, the core values of life. It’s one thing to vote that way. It’s another thing to stand up and fight and lead on those issues.”

Romney hasn’t been in Tennessee or Georgia all week; analyst Black said Romney “may not be red meat enough” to do well in Georgia and Tennessee.

Instead, Romney is focusing this week on Ohio, Washington state and North Dakota, where he blasted Obama’s energy policies Thursday.

“He has tried … to slow the growth of oil production in this country,” Romney said at a rally in frigid, snow-covered Fargo, N.D. “Far from taking credit, he should be hanging his head and taking a little bit of the blame for what’s going on today.”

North Dakota was a curious place for that line of attack, as it’s enjoying an oil boom that’s given it the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, 3.3 percent.

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