Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich enjoys a home-field advantage in the race for the Georgia Republican presidential primary, but he trails Mitt Romney in head-to-head matchups with President Barack Obama, a new poll shows.
Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman, leads Romney 43 percent to 21 percent among Georgia Republicans, according to the poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia Newspaper Partnership, which includes the Chattanooga Times Free Press. No other candidate drew double-digit support.
The poll shows Republican voters continue to express concern over the state of the economy as the March 6 presidential primary draws closer. Nearly half of all respondents said jobs and the economy will be the key issues in choosing a candidate.
Gingrich has become the campaign’s front-runner nationally, and the Georgia results match polls in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina, where Gingrich also leads.
In addition to polling Republicans, Mason-Dixon also posed a pair of questions to a broader sample of general election voters. The results show that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is the stronger general election candidate.
Ed Painter, a 63-year-old business owner in Dalton who is active in both the Whitfield and Murray County tea parties, said Ron Paul, Romney and Gingrich all have pretty broad support in the area. He considers Romney the “establishment Republican” and hopes he is not the GOP candidate.
But Painter said he will be knocking on doors and campaigning for whoever wins the GOP nomination, something he would not have done in the past.
“I want Obama beat so badly, I am extremely flexible,” he said.
Both Romney and Gingrich are favored in matchups with Obama. But Romney’s lead is bigger. In a Gingrich-Obama matchup, Gingrich is favored 50 percent to 41 percent, with 9 percent undecided. In a Romney-Obama matchup, Romney gets 55 percent support to Obama’s 38 percent, with 7 percent undecided.
The difference? Women and independents, said Mason-Dixon managing partner Brad Coker.
“The ultimate group that will make or break any group in the general election are politically independent, not really strongly affiliated suburban women,” Coker said. “Romney is much more attractive to those voters now than Gingrich is.”
That dynamic plays out, too, in the race for the state’s primary. While Gingrich enjoys a healthy lead — not a surprise, given his ties here, Coker said — his support is softer among women. Twenty-nine percent of Republican women support Gingrich, compared to 52 percent of male GOP voters, the poll found.
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, a veteran analyst of Georgia politics, said the thrice-married Gingrich’s trouble with female voters is expected.
“Not too surprising, the way he goes through wives,” Bullock said.
But Marlene Villasenor, 48, of Lawrenceville, is one of those suburban women backing Gingrich — at least now that her first choice, Herman Cain, has suspended his campaign.
“Gingrich’s experience working with Congress would be an asset,” Villasenor said. “I like that when he was speaker [of the U.S. House] he was able to work with [President Bill] Clinton to balance the budget and reform welfare. It showed he could work with the opposing side.”
Romney, who finished third in the state’s 2008 presidential primary, is trailing among evangelical voters and tea party supporters, who are breaking in larger numbers for Gingrich.
Gingrich said the poll results show voters are listening.
“Georgians know my record of fighting for conservative reform and know there will be no need for on-the-job training if I am privileged enough to be the next president,” Gingrich said in an email to the Journal-Constitution. “I appreciate their dedication to be with me as we work to defeat Barack Obama and rebuild the America we love.”
Romney supporters, meanwhile, are undeterred and see positive signs in the poll. Eric Tanenblatt, a managing director at McKenna Long law firm and top Romney ally in Georgia, said the poll plays to Romney’s strengths.
“The number one issue that shows up are jobs and the economy,” said Tanenblatt, who was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s first chief of staff. “Mitt Romney spent 25 years in the private sector. He understands how the economy works. The more voters get to know Mitt Romney, the more they’re going to realize, with jobs and the economy being the number one issue, he’s the candidate for the time.”
Bud Williams, a retired Dalton pharmacist, said he has been watching the debates to monitor candidates’ positions.
Williams, 75, tends to like conservative, business-friendly politicians and so far he favors Romney.
“I like his demeanor — he seems like he would do things the way I would do things,” Williams said.
He said he questions Gingrich’s involvement with lobbyists and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday brought civil fraud charges against six former executives at the two firms, including two former CEOs. The executives were accused of understating the level of high-risk subprime mortgages that Fannie and Freddie held just before the housing bubble burst, The Associated Press reported.
Whoever becomes the Republican nominee, Williams thinks it will be a close race. Obama will use the end of the war in Iraq and other international accomplishments to help bolster his support, he said.
For Williams, however, the big issue is the budget deficit.
“I don’t want to be another Greece, and I think the right person could change that,” he said.
For many evangelicals, Gingrich’s contrition after two failed marriages and extramarital affairs shows he has changed. The Rev. Michael Youssef of the Church of The Apostles in Atlanta said all people are sinners.
“I’d rather have somebody who knows how to confess and repent from sin than somebody who would never acknowledge sin or repent from sin,” said Youssef, who supports Gingrich.
Besides, he said, “we’re not electing a pastor-in-chief. We’re electing a commander-in-chief. If Newt was applying for a job as a pastor, that would be a different story.”
William Glidewell, of Lincolnton, is among those supporting Gingrich.
“He’s had lots of experience around Washington, and if you don’t know your way around Washington, you’ll mess up. I’m not totally happy with lots of our people up there, but he’s got lots of experience in that area,” Glidewell, 79, said of Gingrich.
Though he’s retired after 30 years in the Navy and 15 with the U.S. Postal Service, Glidewell said the economy and jobs and their impact on his grandchildren and great-grandchildren is the most important factor in his choice of a president.
Billie White, 84, of Comer, said he supports Gingrich because of the former House speaker’s experience but is open to changing his mind.
And like Glidewell, White said he won’t be casting his vote for Obama.
“I definitely don’t care for Obama because I think he’s been primed from grade school to do what he’s doing,” White said. “I just don’t trust him, as a Christian. I don’t think he’s on the up-and-up.”
He said he doesn’t like the auto or bank bailouts, and he’s most worried about the rising national debt.
“I can’t go along with what they’re doing in Washington,” he said. “You can’t spend more than you’ve got. You can’t spend your way out of debt.”
But Clay Stafford, 46, of Palmetto, said Romney deserves his vote and that Gingrich does not.
“There are some interesting gentlemanly qualities that Mitt Romney has as far as how he carries himself,” Stafford said. “His business acumen is intriguing to me.”
Stafford said Romney’s work in steadying the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 impressed him, as does his background in business development. Gingrich, on the other hand, “is somebody that obviously is an opportunist.”
“I’m not going to vote for him,” Stafford said of Gingrich. “He is obviously a very intelligent person. But if you look at his record, you have to wonder if he truly has the best of intentions in mind or if he’s just extending his political career.”
Mariann Martin of the Times Free Press, Susan McCord of The Augusta Chronicle, Blake Aued of The Banner-Herald in Athens and Ashley Fielding of The Times of Gainesville contributed to this story.