ATLANTA—Newt Gingrich could find it’s not so easy to go home again.
The former House speaker is using Georgia to anchor his presidential campaign strategy. He’s counting on his old home state to provide a crucial base of support and a backdrop to help him escape the stigma of Washington insider at a time when the public detests anything linked to the capital or its levers of power.
But Georgia is no sure bet for Gingrich.
“Newt’s been gone from Georgia for quite a while now. ... And the shelf life in politics is pretty short,” said state Sen. Don Balfour.
Gingrich represented the state for 10 terms in Congress, but he’s lived in a tony Washington suburb for more than a decade. The strong evangelical base that helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee win Georgia in the 2008 GOP primary may not rush to back the thrice-married Gingrich. And some in the state, who remember Gingrich’s stormy time at the helm of the U.S. House, say they’re simply looking for a fresh nominee with less baggage.
Big-name Georgia Republicans, including current Gov. Nathan Deal and former Gov. Sonny Perdue, support a Gingrich presidential run. But there is less enthusiasm in the grass roots.
“He’s yesterday,” said state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a veteran Republican state lawmaker, vocalizing a key vulnerability for Gingrich.
Linda Douglas, a Republican from Gingrich’s former congressional district in Cobb County, shrugged at the mention of Gingrich’s name and said: “Newt was great in the ’90s but really, his time seems like it’s long gone.”
Gingrich turns 68 in June.
Still, Gingrich has said he’s counting on Georgia to play a big part in his probable presidential bid. Two prominent congressmen — Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey — have said they’ll back him if he runs. Gingrey labeled him the state’s favorite son, and Kingston says there’s hardly an elected official in Georgia who hasn’t attended and maybe even benefited from a fundraiser or event where he’s appeared.
When Gingrich announced that he had set up a website to explore a bid and raise money, he did it at the Georgia Capitol, flanked by the state’s top-ranking Republicans. Former Gov. Zell Miller already is lined up as a national co-chairman of Gingrich’s campaign, and he has said he will open an Atlanta headquarters once he officially enters the race.
Using Georgia as a staging ground allows Gingrich to try to put some distance between himself and Washington, where those seen as closely tied to the capital fared poorly in last year’s midterm elections. A base in Georgia also will allow him to reach out to neighboring states like South Carolina, seen as a crucial early primary state for Gingrich if he’s to be a serious White House contender.
But if he doesn’t win here, it could evoke memories of Al Gore, a former Tennessee senator, setting up shop to run for president in Tennessee and then losing the state in the general election.
Gingrich already has inflated his support in Georgia. He has said he has the support of House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, but both men told The Associated Press they hadn’t selected a candidate yet. And the political action committee for Mitt Romney — another top GOP prospect for 2012 — has funneled money to both.
Gingrich voted in Georgia most recently in 2000, the same year he and his wife, Callista, bought a home in McLean, Va., records show.
Asked about Gingrich, the state’s senior U.S. senator, Saxby Chambliss, chose his words carefully. He called his former U.S. House colleague “one of the most astute political minds in the country.”
But he added, “There obviously is a lot of baggage. No question about it.”
Still, Gingrich was a Republican in Georgia long before the label became fashionable. He curried many favors in the state over the years, raising money for scores of current officeholders and laying the foundation for the GOP party takeover in the state that had been ruled for generations by Democrats.
“He is the godfather of the Republican Party in Georgia,” Kingston said.
But Deal’s hold over the state Republican Party apparatus isn’t assured. His choice for state party chairwoman is locked in a tough battle for the job.
Other Georgia Republicans who once were avowed Gingrich backers have become disillusioned watching him over the years.
Lee Howell, who worked as a Gingrich campaign press secretary, won’t be casting a ballot for his old boss if he runs.
“If I was giving a cocktail party and wanted to have good conversation ... I’d want Newt to be there,” Howell said. “I’m not sure that he would be the kind of person, would have the skills necessary to be president.”