By GREG BLUESTEIN
ATLANTA (AP) — Voters across Georgia were making their picks Tuesday in what could be the biggest test yet for Newt Gingrich as he fights to keep his bid alive for the Republican presidential nomination.
Gingrich was favored to win in Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years. But his chief rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum didn’t concede the state, spending time and resources in the hopes of snagging a win or at the very least a share of the state’s 76 delegates — the most up for grabs of any state on Super Tuesday.
Turnout at the polls, which were open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., was light to moderate across the state, and elections officials said no problems had been reported at polling stations of Tuesday afternoon.
For Gingrich, a victory in Georgia on Tuesday and a strong showing in neighboring Tennessee would be a needed boost to his campaign, which has stalled since his lone victory in South Carolina in late January. A loss in the state that fostered his political career would make it difficult for Gingrich to justify staying in the race.
The former House speaker dedicated a considerable amount of time to shore up Georgia, spending much of last week crossing the state to meet with voters as Romney and Santorum focused on Ohio and the other Super Tuesday states.
Gingrich, who now lives in suburban Virginia, had a slew of advantages heading into the primary. He had the endorsements of state Republican heavyweights, including Gov. Nathan Deal and former presidential candidate Herman Cain. And Gingrich played up his local ties whenever he had the chance.
Lori Thompson, a 39-year-old mother of two from Sharpsburg, said she supported Gingrich because she believes he shares her values and can get the economy back on track.
“There are people who are skilled and hardworking and want to have jobs, and they just can’t get them,” she said. “Newt’s going to be able to help stimulate the economy. He has a solid plan for doing that. I believe that he is positioned to lead this country and turn around our economic situation.”
But the state’s population jumped more than 18 percent since Gingrich last held office in the late 1990s, a flood of residents who may have little memory of his time in government. Some voters who do remember were unconvinced that he was the best choice.
“I was a fan of Newt in the 1990s but it seems like his time has come and gone,” said Hugh Long, a 32-year-old attorney from Smyrna who voted for Ron Paul. “He seems erratic. I’m not a fan of his harebrained ideas.”
Santorum made a play for the social conservative vote across the state with visits to north Georgia, while Romney worked to build on a base of support that earned him 30 percent of the vote in the 2008 Republican presidential primary won by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Chris Brown, a 30-year-old law student, was a big supporter of Romney four years ago but this time around he had a tougher decision before backing the former Massachusetts governor. He said he decided to back Romney again because of his laser-like focus on the economy and his ability to beat President Barack Obama in November.
“Romney could win. The election is about eight months away and that’s about eight lifetimes in politics,” said Brown. “The people who think he’s been damaged by this primary are wrong. He brings a good message that appeals to individuals and conservatives.”
The four-way competition left other voters with a tough, last-minute decision.
Bill Saxman, who runs a bed-and-breakfast with his wife in Savannah, said he was torn between Romney and Santorum until the moment he cast his vote.
“I just went in there and said, ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,”’ said Saxman, 69. “And Santorum came up as moe.”