Gingrich sees momentum in Tennessee

On Monday Gingrich flew around Tennessee, a crucial test for his Southern strategy to chart a campaign comeback after a dismal six weeks in contests across the country. Polls show the former U.S. House Speaker well ahead in Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years, and a win or tight showing in Tennessee would show momentum in his direction as voters cast their GOP ballots in 10 states Tuesday.

Buoyed by favorable polls, Gingrich indicated he felt the wind at his back.

“The last poll here that came out this morning shows us tied or slightly ahead, so we’re very excited about what’s happening in Tennessee,” Gingrich said to about 100 people at the Kingsport Center for Higher Education.

A pair of polls taken in the past couple of days show the race tightening in Tennessee. Public Policy Polling has former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania ahead with 34 percent of the vote, trailed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 29 percent and 27 percent for Gingrich. A We Ask America poll shows a dead heat: 30 percent for Romney, 29 percent each for Gingrich and Santorum.

The polls carry a margin of error of 4.3 percent and 3.06 percent, respectively. Both were conducted by automated telephone interviews.

The Gingrich campaign announced today it was buying television ad time here – a rarity for an effort perpetually struggling financially – to tout Gingrich’s pledge to reduce gas prices to $2.50 per gallon if elected through more domestic oil drilling. The ad buy comes in addition to spending in Tennessee from the Gingrich-allied super PAC, Winning Our Future.

“We’re massively closing a gap here in Tennessee,” said Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, who attributed this to the focus on gas prices. “He’s actually talking about an issue that people care about,” Hammond said.

Vanderbilt University political professor John Geer, who had previously polled the race in Tennessee showing Santorum with a wide lead, said the shift in Gingrich’s direction here is a likely result of voters learning more about Santorum – who has struggled under attacks from Romney in recent weeks.

“The real beneficiary of all this may be Mitt Romney, since the conservative base may be splitting and that may allow Romney to do well in Tennessee,” Geer said.

Geer predicted Romney to do well in metropolitan Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, with Santorum and Gingrich jousting for votes in the rural areas. Gingrich’s campaign took him Monday from Kingsport, in the mountainous northeast portion of the state, to Knoxville and Chattanooga. At the final stop, he was scheduled to be joined by McDonough businessman Herman Cain, a former presidential hopeful who has been stumping on Gingrich's behalf in Tennessee and elsewhere.

Speaking in Kingsport, at a Food King grocery store, Gingrich pointed out a recent comment by Romney that Gingrich’s $2.50 gas claim is mere “pandering” because the price of gas is unpredictable. Gingrich claimed that $2.50 is a cautious number, and he thinks it could even go below $2 again with more drilling.

“Of course nobody knows you can get to $2.50, but there’s this thing called setting goals,” Gingrich said told about 150 people at a Republican Women’s Luncheon in Kingsport. “It’s not called pandering; it’s called leadership.”

The Gingrich campaign is keeping an eye beyond Tuesday’s votes. It announced the $2.50 gas ad also will air in Alabama and Mississippi, which vote March 13. Gingrich has scheduled a midday jaunt to Huntsville, Ala., Tuesday before his election night party in Atlanta.

Gingrich said in a CNN interview today that he plans to use his Tuesday night speech to challenge his remaining foes to another debate. There are no more televised contests scheduled after Romney – followed by Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul – pulled out of a scheduled March 1 debate in Atlanta. Gingrich has used the forums to help carry his candidacy.

He is scheduled to spend all day Wednesday in Alabama and Thursday in Mississippi. Gingrich also will campaign in Kansas ahead of Saturday’s caucuses, and Hammond said he will head to Texas later Saturday – a delegate-rich state that will not vote until the end of May.

“One of the reasons I have stayed in the race as it went up and down like a roller coaster -- and apparently according to polls this morning it’s back up again -- that I think specifically we need somebody who can stand on a stage and debate Barack Obama in October,” Gingrich told the women’s luncheon.

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