Gingrich to play up southern roots in Georgia campaign swing

The campaign trail in Georgia is getting crowded. 

With less than three weeks left until the state's March 6 presidential primary, candidates in the topsy-turvy Republican race are turning their attention to Super Tuesday's biggest delegate prize. 

Newt Gingrich will play up his roots when he returns to his old home state to campaign for two days, beginning with a rally in Peachtree City Friday night. 

Surging after a trio of wins in recent weeks, Rick Santorum will focus on his evangelical base, appearing Sunday night at a "God and Country" rally at First Redeemer Church in Cumming. 

Mitt Romney headlined a rally in Atlanta last week and a political action committee backing the former Massachusetts governor has purchased a modest amount of air time in the state to run an anti-Gingrich ad. And Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Thursday the candidate plans to spend "a lot of time campaigning in Georgia and Ohio ahead of Super Tuesday." 

With 76 delegates at stake -- the most of the 10 Super Tuesday states -- the three GOP candidates are eying Georgia closely. 

Texas Congressman Ron Paul won a Republican Party straw poll in the state last summer but hasn't been seen in the state campaigning. 

Gingrich clearly holds an edge. The former House speaker represented a suburban Atlanta district for two decades and was in the trenches building up the state Republican Party at a time when Democrats dominated Georgia politics. 

A recent poll confirmed Gingrich's front-runner status in the state. The survey, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc., found Gingrich leading Romney 43 percent to 29 percent among likely voters in Georgia. 

Santorum had 12 percent, while Paul trailed with 6 percent. 

"There's still a little bit of a favorite son aspect to Newt," former state Republican Party Chairman Chuck Clay said. 

But Clay also said while the other candidates can afford a poor showing in the state, for Gingrich it's a must-win. 

"A loss here is catastrophic," Clay said. "A win, along with a strong showing in some other southern states, puts the wind back in his sails." 

Gingrich has the support of Gov. Nathan Deal and most of the state's U.S. House delegation. 

Still, the anti-Gingrich television ad that began airing in the state this week seems designed to make Gingrich defend his old home turf. The ad resurrects Gingrich's baggage and is paid for by the pro-Romney PAC, Restore Our Future. 

Santorum has the weakest organization in Georgia, but is sparking fresh interest after pulling out surprising wins in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. 

Local Santorum supporters held a planning meeting in Stone Mountain on Monday. State Public Service Commission Chairman Tim Echols, a Santorum backer, said that in the coming weeks supporters would be launching an old-fashioned, door-to door effort to round up support. 

Echols said Santorum was the most similar to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the state's presidential primary in 2008. 

"He has the momentum," Echols said. "And he shares our values." 

Although former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain threw his support to Gingrich, some of Cain's backers have moved to Santorum. 

Savannah tea party leader Jeanne Seaver said she was attracted to the former Pennsylvania senator's ideological purity. 

"To me, he is a real conservative," she said. "We just have to get that message out there." 

Attorney General Sam Olens, Romney's top backer in the state, said he expected the GOP candidate would be back in the state before Super Tuesday. 

In-person early voting began Monday and turnout has been light so far. 

Absentee and in-person early voting has so far totaled 22,924, according to state elections officials. 

In 2008, with both primaries contested there were 247,897 ballots cast early, or 12.2 percent of the total ballots cast. 

Republican strategist Tom Perdue said he had detected a lack of enthusiasm as he has talked to fellow Republicans. 

"And if we can't get excited about getting this president out of office then we are in big trouble." Perdue said