Newt Gingrich is poised to win Georgias Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, but voters here doubt that he has the best shot at unseating Barack Obama in November, a new poll for The Georgia Newspaper Partnership shows.
The poll of likely Republican voters found that 38 percent are ready to vote for Gingrich on Super Tuesday; Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are virtually tied for second, with Romney favored by 24 percent and Santorum by 22 percent. Only 3 percent said they plan to vote for Ron Paul, and another 12 percent were undecided.
In spite of Gingrichs top showing, 39 percent of respondents said they thought Romney had the best chance of defeating Obama. Only 30 percent chose Gingrich, and just 12 percent chose Santorum.
I want somebody that is going to get Obama out, said Romney supporter Jean Williams, 80, a retired teacher in Alpharetta. Newt Gingrich, I think, is the smartest of the whole crew -- but I think he has too much baggage, hes made too many enemies. I would love to support him but I dont feel hes going to (win).
Kerwin Swint, a Kennesaw State University political scientist and former Republican strategist, said electability has been Romneys strength through the entire campaign.
The main argument for Romney is that hes someone who can appeal to independent voters and perhaps women voters and win in November, Swint said. Theyre voting for Romney not because theyre really looking forward to a President Romney, but they think he can win.
Gingrich spokeswoman Susan Meyers said the poll reflects Georgians trust in the man who represented the state in Congress for two decades and who has spent the better part of the past week campaigning here.
It shows he is the only candidate in this race who understands economics and how the Obama economy is hurting consumers, Meyers said. We expect Super Tuesday to be a super day for Newt and his supporters.
Middle Georgia Republicans interviewed Saturday followed the poll trend in supporting Gingrich, and all named the economy as the countrys most pressing issue.
Things are getting higher and higher expensive, said Bonaire resident Edeltraud Copper, 67. We need to get back to the basics of people having a job; people who do work shouldnt have to worry about the people who dont want to work.
Copper was undecided when researchers spoke to her Thursday, but said she decided Friday to vote for Gingrich, during early voting. I wouldnt have minded voting for Santorum, but hes not quite as experienced as Gingrich, Copper said.
Janice Bedding, 38, of Perry, said she also voted for Gingrich. Its unreal when gas is almost $4, said Bedding, echoing concerns about the economy. It tells you this country is in a bad spot. We need someone who can fix this.
Meanwhile David Paul, 56, of Macon, said he plans to vote for Gingrich because Hes a Georgia boy.
Gingrichs victory in the state is nearly assured, said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll for the Georgia Newspaper Partnership. The real fight will be for second place, Coker said -- an important battle not just for momentum, but in the all-important scramble for delegates. The outcome, he said, could hinge on the undecideds.
When Mason-Dixon polled Georgians in early February, 9 percent were undecided. The fact that figure appears to have increased during the past month shows voters giving Santorum a second look, Coker said. (The margin of error for both polls was 4 percent, and the increase in undecided voters falls within that margin.)
Now you have people choosing between Romney and Santorum, Coker said. People still undecided are really, really paying attention now and really pondering how theyre going to go.
Romney will visit Gwinnett County on Sunday -- a free pancake brunch at Brookwood High School in Snellville -- to convince those undecideds that hes their best option.
Weve been optimistic all along that we would be winning delegates out of Georgia, said Gabriel Sterling, a member of the Sandy Springs City Council and a top Romney supporter. We always fight to win every state, but if we can come in second statewide, pick up a couple congressional districts, finish second in others, we will come out of here with a good group of delegates.
Electability is a strong driver of Romney voters, the poll found.
Asked whether they chose a candidate based on shared beliefs versus a candidate who would have the best chance of becoming president, 80 percent of Romneys supporters said the latter. That compares to 55 percent of Gingrichs voters who chose him because they believe he can beat Obama. Santorum and Pauls supporters, meanwhile, more often said they chose based on compatibility on issues, not on electability.
Tammy Jenkins, 46, of Bonaire, said shell back Santorum on Super Tuesday.
Im kind of disappointed that hes not doing better, she said. He seems like hes for the family and hes conservative and he knows family values.
Sarah Bell of Atlanta said shes with Santorum even though she isnt sure he can beat Obama. Bell, 28, who home-schools her three children, said shes hopeful Santorum can win in November.
I would think people could see that Obama couldnt follow through on many of his promises, Bell said, adding she supports Santorums pro-life stance and consistency.
Santorum, Bell said, doesnt go with the change of wind things, he seems pretty strong and it doesnt matter to him if he offends people.
While Gingrich has a clear lead here, the race for second is close. Romney and Santorum must hope to stay above 20 percent in Georgia because of the states new rules for awarding delegates. Any candidate who gets at least 20 percent of the statewide vote will be awarded a share of 34 at-large delegates to the national convention in Tampa this summer. Forty-two delegates will be awarded based on the vote by congressional district.
Santorum and Romney supporters now must focus on turnout, rallying their bases and hoping the undecideds break their way.
We have a final push going on the phones and hope to convince voters, especially women, that Santorum has been targeted and mischaracterized by the Left on his positions, said Santorum supporter Tim Echols, chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission.
Gingrich has said he has to win his former home state to remain a viable candidate. To make sure that happens, Gingrich spent Tuesday through Saturday here on a statewide bus tour that took him from Dalton to Savannah.
The other campaigns took pleasure in noting that Gingrichs slipping fortunes elsewhere forced him to guard his home turf.
Santorum had been surging in Georgia before Newt camped out here and Romney started spending a small fortune on TV, Echols said.
Romney supporters noted that Gingrichs support here dropped from the February Georgia Newspaper Partnership poll that had him with 42 percent.
Newts decline in the recent poll after spending the past week or so traveling the state, coupled with his lackluster results in Arizona and Michigan, is looking like he may have just concluded his farewell tour across Georgia, said Romney supporter Eric Tanenblatt, a managing director at the McKenna Long law firm.
Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said a Gingrich win in Georgia might not be enough.
A win in Georgia doesnt by itself really help him that much, Abramowitz said. Obviously, its better than losing in Georgia. If he wins Georgia even by a pretty good margin but does poorly everywhere else, it makes it pretty difficult for him.
Gingrich does not have a lead in any other Super Tuesday state, although he appears within striking distance in Tennessee. His campaign, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt any talk of his leaving the race, issued a schedule for post-Super Tuesday that has him visiting Alabama, Mississippi and Kansas.
Tammy Combs of Jasper hopes Gingrich stays in the race.
Hes the best one weve got, said Combs, 48. I dont like the other ones. Theyre phony. Hes the lesser of all the evils.
This story was written for the Georgia News Partnership by reporters Aaron Gould Shenin and Melissa Ruggieri of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Telegraph writer Christina M. Wright contributed to this report.