ATLANTA — Georgia’s Republican primary is shaping up as a role reversal for the two leading candidates, with Newt Gingrich backed by establishment support and a home-state network, while Mitt Romney is trying to play the role of an insurgent spoiler.
Gingrich has decades of relationships in Georgia. He launched his political career from the suburbs of Atlanta, and returned home while House Speaker to outline his vision of America’s future. He has a dozen staffers here and landed the endorsements of Georgia GOP heavyweights, from Gov. Nathan Deal to his former presidential rival Herman Cain.
Gingrich’s camp hopes his connections here put him in a strong position to win a major share of the 76 delegates up for grabs in Georgia, the biggest prize of the 10 contests on Super Tuesday.
“I can guarantee you that Newt Gingrich will not be losing Georgia,” said Gingrich campaign aide Susan Meyers. “He will easily be putting Georgia in the win column.”
But Romney’s campaign is conceding nothing. The former Massachusetts governor plans to visit Georgia on Tuesday, which will attract campaign funding and media attention. And he hopes to build on a base of support here that earned him 30 percent of the vote in 2008.
“We’re planning on mounting an aggressive campaign in Georgia,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a Romney adviser. “The governor had a strong organization in 2008, and came very close to winning. We have a foundation to build upon and a lot of residual support from the last race.”
The race puts Gingrich in a tricky situation because he’s so heavily favored to win. If Romney senses the possibility of an upset victory, he may shift more resources here from other Super Tuesday contests like Virginia, where Gingrich isn’t on the ballot.
“We could end up seeing a lot like what Florida just saw: A deluge of hard-hitting ads contrasting the two,” said Joel McElhannon, a Republican strategist here who isn’t aligned with either campaign. “Georgia, for Romney, could be the knockout punch. The question would become what’s the path to victory for Newt if he were to lose Georgia.”
Also expected to make a play for the state are U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning candidate with a devoted following, and Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who is pitching himself as the most viable conservative alternative to Romney.
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said Georgia voters could be hearing from all the campaigns because Atlanta’s international airport makes this an easy place to visit, and because TV advertising in the Atlanta media market reaches so much of the state’s population.
“If you’re advertising in Atlanta, you’re reaching the bulk of the electorate,” he said. “We may be in a commanding position as opposed to four years ago when we were clearly eclipsed by other states.”
Meanwhile, Democrats also are working to shape the debate in Georgia, where absentee balloting has been under way since Jan. 21. The Democratic Party of Georgia opened an office in Savannah on Saturday in hopes of raising Democratic turnout in November to boost President Barack Obama’s re-election hopes.
Gingrich aides aren’t taking Georgia for granted. Deal led a conference call with hundreds of Gingrich supporters last week, and the campaign expects volunteers to fly in from other states to supplement the paid staffers as the primary nears, said Meyers. Gingrich will make a swing through the South before the election and his surrogates, including Cain, are expected to stump for him around the region.
“Georgia is one of the most important states in securing the nomination. And we know southerners love Newt,” Meyers said. “We expect huge crowds when he finally comes home. It will be a grand homecoming for him.”
Romney’s camp will make sure Gingrich has to fight for every vote here. Romney has some key endorsements, too, including Attorney General Sam Olens, who said he plans to “vigorously campaign throughout Georgia.” A recent meeting attracted more than 200 Romney supporters, and the campaign is evaluating whether to pour more resources into Georgia, Tanenblatt said.
“We know that Speaker Gingrich is from Georgia so we have a little bit more of an uphill battle than other states, but we’re mounting an aggressive campaign,” said Tanenblatt. “We’re going to have the resources to do what we need to do, not just in Georgia but across the country.”