BRUNSWICK – Amber Brink stood among a couple hundred gnat-swatting Newt Gingrich supporters in the South Georgia marshland bearing a sign written in Southern drawl: “Jaw-ja Peaches for Newt.”
Asked after a half-hour Gingrich speech why she plans to back the former Georgia Congressman in Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary, the 24-year-old Brink replied: “He’s a Southern gentleman.”
The Pennsylvania-born Army brat doesn’t have much of a drawl, but a Southern appeal is crucial to a Gingrich campaign revival and it starts in Georgia, a state Gingrich has publicly declared that he must win in order to soldier on. He finished a four-day swing through the state with a South Georgia sprint Friday, hopping from Savannah to Brunswick to Valdosta to Columbus.
In the process, Gingrich declared himself a “visionary,” a label he said does not apply to his main GOP foes Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
Romney, Gingrich said, is a “manager” who “left Massachusetts about the way he inherited it” as governor.
Santorum said during a recent debate that “politics is a team sport” to explain his support for the No Child Left Behind law, pushed by the George W. Bush White House when he was in the Senate. Gingrich seized upon the statement as evidence that Santorum, a former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator "went along with things that he didn’t believe in because that’s what the team was doing.”
“I’m neither of those,” Gingrich continued. “Like Barack Obama, I am a visionary. It’s just that my vision is almost exactly the opposite of his.”
Gingrich described himself as “cheerful” in last week’s debate and has lurched back and forth between attacking his foes to appearing above the fray. This week the campaign has taken special aim at Santorum, who poses the biggest threat to Gingrich in Georgia and other Southern states as the conservative alternative to Romney.
In Tennessee and Oklahoma – two other states voting Tuesday where Gingrich thinks he can do well – the Gingrich campaign paid for an automated call to voters telling them how Santorum voted against a national “right to work” law to prevent unions from charging mandatory dues when he was in the Senate.
Santorum has said he supports right to work laws but he did not want to override his own state of Pennsylvania, which did not have a right-to-work law. Georgia and most Southern states do.
At sundown Friday on the steps of the Valdosta courthouse, Gingrich ignored the other Republicans and aimed all his fire at the president.
“His approach, his philosophy, his policies are extraordinarily dangerous to the future of this country,” Gingrich said. “The correct answer for the American system is to simply, decisively beat him.”
And Gingrich still insists that he’s the man to do it.
On Friday the campaign – in a departure from typical practice – unveiled a schedule through next week to underscore the point that he is far from finished and to express confidence in Peach State triumph. After spending Tuesday night in Atlanta, Gingrich is scheduled to go to Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas, all of which vote in the following week.
As he focuses on the South as a revival strategy, Gingrich has made religion a more prominent theme in his stump speech, calling the Obama administration “anti-religious” and saying it is “at war with the Catholic Church” over mandating contraception coverage in health care plans.
“This is an administration who is always willing to apologize to Islam but not to the Catholic Church,” Gingrich, a converted Catholic, said in Brunswick.
Gingrich plays up his long ties to Georgia as much as possible. He went to high school in Columbus and represented a Cobb County-based district in Congress for 20 years, though he now lives in McLean, Va. In Valdosta he recalled how his high school football team would often by trounced by the powerhouse Valdosta team.
Savannah U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, who traveled with Gingrich through his coastal congressional district, said he has known Gingrich since the 1970s.
“The one thing about Newt Gingrich is he has always delivered the same message – less government, more money in your pocket because of lower taxes and personal freedom,” Kingston said in Brunswick.
The primary message these days is low gas prices, which Gingrich insists are possible with more domestic drilling. His stump speech targets Obama for not opening up more federal land to drillers and says he should replace the heads of the departments of Energy and Interior with North Dakota oil men.
“By focusing on solutions, focusing on big ideas, drawing a sharp contrast with Barack Obama we think we can convince people. If you just ask your friends and neighbors in October who do you want to have debate Barack Obama,” Gingrich said in Brunswick, trailing off as he was overcome with “Newt” chants.
The big ideas are what swayed Amber Brink, who got her “Peach” sign autographed by the candidate’s wife, Callista. She also appreciated what she described as Gingrich’s gentlemanly manner in the face of attacks -- particularly in neighboring Florida, where Gingrich suffered a Jan. 31 loss from which his campaign has yet to recover.
“Campaigning there was just downright dirty,” Brink said. “He didn’t do that. He’s not going to go down and do it dirty. That’s not him.”
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