Gingrich declares victory in Georgia, voters here cite the economy

“In the morning, we are going on to Alabama,” said the former Georgia congressman, who was flanked by dozens of supporters on a stage at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel & Convention Center in Cobb County. “We are going onto Mississippi. We are going on to Kansas. And that is just this week.”

The former House speaker concluded by declaring: “With your help, we are going to go on to Tampa and win the nomination.”

Gingrich has said he must do well in the South -- including in Georgia -- to remain strong in the race for the nomination. Rick Tyler, a senior advisor with the pro-Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future, predicted the former congressman would win Alabama, Mississippi and Texas. Asked about Kansas, Tyler said: “We’ll see.”

“We got a big win out of Georgia. I think we lived to fight another day,” said Tyler, who attended Gingrich’s victory party.

Before Gingrich appeared, Public Service Commissioner Lauren "Bubba" McDonald Jr. warmed up the crowd in the ballroom by singing “Georgia on My Mind.” The campaign kept the enthusiasm going by showing clips of Gingrich on the campaign trail.

Earlier in the evening, Gingrich’s supporters cheered and enthusiastically held up campaign signs after learning the former congressman had won Georgia. Gingrich represented the Peach State in Congress for 20 years. His supporters held up blue and red campaign signs complete with a picture of a gas dispenser, signaling Gingrich’s proposal to lower gas prices to $2.50 a gallon. They watched elected results stream in on Fox News on a large television screen to the right of a stage. Some chanted "Newt!"

Gingrich cheerfully poked at Mitt Romney and President Obama during his speech. At one point, someone in the crowd pointed out the former Congressman wasn't using a teleprompter.

"We run a frugal campaign," Gingrich deadpanned, "and the campaign couldn't afford it." He went on to say he would challenge Obama to debates and would allow the president to use a teleprompter in them.

The campaign announced that Gov. Nathan Deal, Gingrich's Georgia campaign chairman, could not attend because of a scheduling conflict. But numerous current and former elected officials and other supporters joined the party. Several predicted his win in Georgia will give him the momentum he needs in the coming weeks.

“It’s an indication that true conservative Republicans are looking for an alternative to Romney and Newt is the man,” said former state Sen. John Douglas of Social Circle. “We are looking forward to keeping that going in Alabama and Mississippi next week.”

Leonard Vaughn, an Anglican church minister from Cumming, said he supports Gingrich because the “Washington establishment may fear him.”

“He knows Washington D.C. so well that he will be able to make the changes Washington needs,” Vaughn said. “He is by far the best qualified candidate in the race.”

Steve Champness, an aviation industry executive from Alpharetta, said he wants to see Gingrich on the same stage with President Obama in the general election.

“That would be the debate a lot of people would like to see,” Champness said, adding that Gingrich’s win in Georgia “sends a powerful signal to the other candidates that we have to have conservative values.”

Leslie Cole of Cordele also joined the party Tuesday.

“Of course it’s Georgia, so we would have been disappointed otherwise, but we think he’s the man who can lead this country,” she said.

Mike Congemi, of Acworth, said “this could be his third rising." Congemi added that he was swayed to the Gingrich camp in part by his debate performances.

“He has pretty concrete ideas about where he wants to go,” Congemi said. “Some of the other candidates are more general or nebulous about their ideas.”

Several supporters sported festive outfits at Gingrich’s party. For example, Eloise Cunningham, of Marietta, and three colleagues from the East Cobb Kickers wore their red, white and blue sequined vests to the event. Their dance group performs at nursing homes and churches. Dancers must be 60 or older to participate, Cunningham explained.

“We are like the Rockettes. We just kick a little lower and we move a little slower,” she said.

The economy was the number one issue among Georgia's GOP primary voters, with the federal budget deficit a distant second, according to interviews with voters as they left the polling places Tuesday. Fifty-eight percent of voters interviewed by Edison Research named the economy as their top concern; 29 percent chose the deficit.

The early exit poll data reflected interviews conducted before 2 p.m. Updates will become available later in the evening.

As for what voters sought in a candidate, the ability to beat President Barack Obama in November topped the list with 46 percent saying it mattered most in their vote.

Ninety-five percent of those interviewed were white. Two-thirds of voters said they are born-again or evangelical Christians; 70 percent said they support the Tea Party, and 70 percent called themselves conservative. One in four described themselves as an independent rather than a Republican.

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