Despite having not won a primary in more than one month and falling behind in national polls, Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich told a crowd of Georgia voters Tuesday that it was not a matter of if he would become his party’s nominee, but when.
“We can win next Tuesday,” he said to an estimated crowd of 400 at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center. “Winning next Tuesday moves us toward Tampa in a big way.”
Gingrich’s reference was to next week’s Super Tuesday primaries, when voters from 10 states will determine the fate of a 466-delegate jackpot. Of all the states, Georgia carries the biggest prize, with 76 delegates. Tennessee offers 58, the third-largest sum.
Although polls show Gingrich enjoying a sizable lead over his competitors in his home state, the road to winning other states on Super Tuesday will be a formidable challenge. A recent Vanderbilt University poll showed the candidate coming in fourth place among “registered and likely” voters in Tennessee.
In a brief interview with reporters Tuesday morning, Gingrich said he saw the situation in Tennessee as “very fluid.”
“I was ahead in Tennessee three weeks ago,” he said. “I think after we get done today, people will come bouncing back.”
As he took the podium in Dalton, current GOP front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were making their final appeals to primary voters in Michigan and Arizona. But Gingrich quickly explained his campaign’s decision to set their sights on Southern states, particularly Tennessee and Georgia.
“We deliberately focused; we decided not to compete in Michigan because we thought it would be important for us to focus here, and in Tennessee, and Oklahoma, Idaho and Ohio and other states,” he said. “Your help in making sure we carry Georgia really, really matters.”
Flanked by his wife, Callista Gingrich, the candidate drew laughs during his 30-minute, notes-free speech when he offered a jab at Romney, relayed to him by a supporter during a private fundraiser held in Chattanooga earlier that morning.
“Somebody in Chattanooga said to me this morning, you know, Romney was the kind of guy who would have fired Christopher Columbus,” Gingrich said, criticizing his opponent’s lack of vision and comparing his to American innovators like the Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison. “We’ve been a nation of visionaries. And while the cynics and the ‘realists’ ridicule vision, I believe in the Bible-without vision, the people perish.”
Gingrich’s paraphrase of scripture was fitting for his address, which leaned heavily on remarks aimed at bashing President Barack Obama for leading what he labeled the “most anti-religious administration in American history.” At one point, Gingrich called on the president to apologize to servicemen and women for tolerating “religious hatred” coming from anti-American extremists.
“Mr. President, you owe the American people and the young men and women in uniform an apology for your failure to defend America,” he said, drawing applause. “This is an administration so one-sidedly pro-Islamic that it refuses to tell the truth about people who are trying to kill us . We have been tolerating, and tolerating, and tolerating, and as a result, our enemies have become bolder and more arrogant.”
Gingrich then said he thought having an energy policy focused on harnessing American resources would relieve the country’s oil dependence on the Middle East and lower gas prices to $2.50 per gallon. He asked the crowd to share the idea on their Facebook pages and make donations to his campaign in increments of $2.50 “Newt Gallons.”
The candidate called himself the only Republican candidate who “runs on really big ideas.”
“It’s something I learned from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher,” he said. “This is a big country. We have big challenges, so we need big solutions. That’s the American model.”
Reactions from the crowd were favorable toward Gingrich, with many of those in attendance saying they would vote for the candidate next week.
“It’s about time we got someone who was smart about government and has the experience that Gingrich has to run this government and size it down,” Michael O’Connell, a Chattanooga resident, said. “No one’s perfect, but he articulates the message that means a lot to Americans.”
Harriet Berman, a member of the Chattanooga Tea Party, said she was encouraged by the address and added that recent issues regarding the president and contraception afforded Gingrich the opportunity to slam him on religious issues.
“President Obama has opened up the avenue to discuss that by his position regarding contraception and the Catholic Church,” she said. “He’s the one who opened Pandora’s box, and that has given credence and ‘permission’ for that to be a topic.”
Brad Mendez, a Dalton resident, said he was still deciding which Republican would receive his vote after hearing Gingrich speak. Mendez said he appreciated the once-front-runner’s resilience, having observed the swings of his campaign.
“Anything is possible these days,” Mendez said. “Today helped me to see the clarity of his vision of what he’s trying to do. Sometimes we don’t get a full view of that in an ordinary news clip.”
Following his speech, Gingrich hit the road for campaign events in Rome and Carrolton, Ga.
Updated @ 7:44 a.m. on 02/29/12 to correct a style error.