Gingrich wins Georgia; Romney captures second

Newt Gingrich said he had to win Georgia's Republican presidential primary to remain in the race, and his former home state did not let him down.

The former U.S. House speaker and 20-year Georgia congressman easily carried his former state Tuesday -- as expected -- while the race for second place appeared to be going to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Gingrich appeared to win with close to half the votes cast in Georgia, with Romney and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum locked in a tight fight for most of the night for second place and a slice of the state's 76 delegates. Romney began to edge away late in the evening while Santorum was struggling to get the 20 percent of the vote necessary to qualify for a share of at-large delegates. To see final results, go to ajc.com.

"You’re the reason we survived every single effort of the establishment to stop us," Gingrich told supporters at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel in a speech that attacked Wall Street financiers, the "elites" in the GOP, the media and his opponents.

Gingrich said he alone "has the guts to take the president head on" and said he won't stop now. "We are going on to Alabama, we're going to Mississippi, we're going to Kansas," he said. "And that's just this week."

Gingrich's victory here was not in doubt; polling showed him with a healthy margin for the past several weeks. The only question was how wide a gap he could form between him and his competitors, and not just for bragging rights. The state's delegates will be awarded proportionally. Any candidate getting more than 20 percent of the statewide vote would get a proportional share of 34 at-large delegates.

The remaining 42 will be awarded by congressional district -- three for each of the 14 districts. Any candidate earning more than half the vote in a district gets all three delegates; if no one gets a majority, the first-place finisher in the district gets two delegates, the runner-up gets one.

David Hauser of east Cobb said he voted for Gingrich on Tuesday because despite his past marital transgressions, the man knows how to get things done.

“I think Newt has a lot of [skeletons] in his closet, but this country’s becoming Marxist if it keeps going the way it is," said Hauser, 68. "I think Newt’s got the wherewithal to support his convictions. He’s got a voice, and he makes sense.”

Gingrich made no secret that a victory here was paramount to his ability to continue to compete. Now living in Virginia, he all but re-established residency over the past week as he spent parts of six of the past seven days in Georgia.

But Romney and Santorum spent time and money in the state over the final days. Both made personal visits and used robocalls to reach voters.

Speaking to supporters in Ohio, Santorum said he had a good night.

"We’re going to get at least a couple of gold medals and a whole passel of silver medals," Santorum said.

It was, however, looking increasingly like a bronze for Santorum in Georgia, with silver going to Romney. Eric Tanenblatt, a senior director at McKenna Long & Aldridge and major Romney backer in Georgia, said the apparent outcome was to be expected.

Second place, Tanenblatt said, "that's where we're going to end up. We always knew this was Newt's home state and he was the favorite, but it's all about delegates."

Gingrich's success on Super Tuesday, with nine other states also voting, was mostly limited to Georgia. By 10 p.m. Gingrich was not leading in any other state, including Tennessee, which was thought to be his best chance for a second win. Santorum appeared poised to win the Volunteer State, with Gingrich in third.

Romney, meanwhile, was not having early success in driving the others from the race. He and Santorum were locked in a near dead heat in Ohio, and Santorum was also declared the winner in Oklahoma.

In Georgia, Tuesday's primary marks the end of the nomination fight and signals the unofficial start of the general election. President Barack Obama, who lost Georgia in 2008 with 47 percent to 52 percent for Republican John McCain, will be in Atlanta on March 16 for a fundraiser.

While other Southern states, Virginia and North Carolina in particular, are expected to get the bulk of his regional attention this year, a CNN/Time poll released Monday showed that Georgia could be in play in November. State House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said Tuesday that he expects Georgia to be competitive.

Marilyn Hendryx of Sandy Springs hoped that Georgia would represent an easy win for the Republicans.

The 82-year-old retiree voted for Romney on Tuesday for one main reason.

“I think he’s the only one that can get rid of Obama, and I think he’s got more sense than some of the others," Hendryx said. "He’s very bright, and he knows what he’s about.”

Exit poll data showed that Gingrich outpaced his GOP competitors in Georgia among both men and women and within every age group. In income categories, he trailed Romney only among the wealthiest voters, those making $200,000 or more.

Seventy-one percent of those surveyed said they considered themselves conservative on most political matters, with 39 percent identifying themselves as very conservative.

The economy and the deficit topped voters' concerns. Fifty-eight percent said the economy mattered most in deciding who they would support. Of those, Gingrich won the support of 49 percent.

The federal deficit was the top concern for 28 percent of those surveyed.

Social issues trailed far behind. Abortion was the leading concern for just 8 percent of voters surveyed. And illegal immigration -- a perennial hot topic in Georgia -- was the top pick for just 2 percent of respondents.

Religion played a role in Tuesday’s results.

Roughly two-thirds of those surveyed were self-described evangelicals. And 71 percent of voters said whether a candidate shared their religious belief mattered a great deal or somewhat.

The tea party was also popular among Tuesday’s GOP primary electorate. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said they supported the grass-roots group.

While Gingrich played the role of favorite son, his Georgia ties didn’t matter to the majority of voters. Sixty-one percent said the former congressman’s roots in the state mattered not much or at all.

But gas prices were on voters’ minds. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed listed them as important while 16 percent claimed they were not important. The remainder did not respond.

Staff writer Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this article.

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