Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich enjoys a home-field advantage in the race for the Georgia presidential primary, but he trails Mitt Romney in head-to-head matchups with President Barack Obama, a new poll shows.
Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman, leads Romney 43 percent to 21 percent among Georgia Republicans, according to the poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia Newspaper Partnership. No other candidate drew double-digit support.
The poll shows Republican voters continue to express concern over the state of the economy as the March 6 presidential primary draws closer. Nearly half of all respondents said jobs and the economy will be the key issues in choosing a candidate.
Gingrich has become the campaign’s front-runner nationally, and the Georgia results match polls in early voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina where Gingrich also leads.
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In addition to polling Republicans, Mason-Dixon also posed a pair of questions to a broader sample of general election voters. The results show that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is the stronger general election candidate.
Both Romney and Gingrich are favored in matchups with Obama. But Romney’s lead is bigger. In a Gingrich-Obama matchup, Gingrich is favored 50 percent to 41 percent, with 9 percent undecided. In a Romney-Obama matchup, Romney gets 55 percent support to Obama’s 38 percent, with 7 percent undecided.
The difference? Women and independents, said Mason-Dixon managing partner Brad Coker.
“The ultimate group that will make or break any group in the general election are politically independent, not really strongly affiliated suburban women,” Coker said. “Romney is much more attractive to those voters now than Gingrich is,” Coker said.
That dynamic plays out, too, in the race for the state’s primary. While Gingrich enjoys a healthy lead -- not a surprise, given his ties here, Coker said -- his support is softer among women. Twenty-nine percent of Republican women support Gingrich, compared to 52 percent of male GOP voters, the poll found.
University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, a veteran analyst of Georgia politics, said the thrice-married Gingrich’s trouble with female voters is expected.
“Not too surprising, the way he goes through wives,” Bullock said.
But Marlene Villasenor, 48, of Lawrenceville, is one of those suburban women backing Gingrich -- at least now that her first choice, Herman Cain, has suspended his campaign.
“Gingrich’s experience working with Congress would be an asset,” Villasenor said. “I like that when he was speaker he was able to work with (President Bill) Clinton to balance the budget and reform welfare. It showed he could work with the opposing side.”
Republican activist Bill Knowles, 48, of Macon, said he originally supported Gingrich before Herman Cain entered the picture. After Cain suspended his campaign, Knowles said, he returned to the Gingrich camp.
“I just respect the speaker, and I think he’s done a good job for this country and will continue to do a good job as president,” Knowles said of Gingrich, a former speaker of the House.
Knowles said Gingrich has a plethora of good ideas on everything from foreign policy to the national economy to immigration.
“It’s not a one-trick pony,” said Knowles, who was not a poll respondent.
The Maconite said Gingrich’s positive campaign has been endearing, though the candidate has had to respond to some mudslinging.
Gingrich has also done a great job not falling into media traps, Knowles said. And, as for the “personal baggage” recently reported, Knowles said every candidate has it.
“Every candidate has to be vetted,” he said. “But, there’s certain things that don’t affect their ability to govern.”
Romney, who finished third in the state’s 2008 presidential primary, is trailing among evangelical voters and tea party supporters, who are breaking in larger numbers for Gingrich.
Gingrich said the poll results show voters are listening.
“Georgians know my record of fighting for conservative reform and know there will be no need for on-the-job training if I am privileged enough to be the next president,” Gingrich said in an e-mail to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I appreciate their dedication to be with me as we work to defeat Barack Obama and rebuild the America we love.”
Romney supporters, meanwhile, are undeterred and see positive signs in the poll. Eric Tanenblatt, a managing director at McKenna Long & Aldridge Law firm and top Romney ally in Georgia, said the poll plays to Romney’s strengths.
“The No. 1 issue that shows up are jobs and the economy,” said Tanenblatt, who was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s first chief of staff. “Mitt Romney spent 25 years in the private sector. He understands how the economy works. The more voters get to know Mitt Romney, the more they’re going to realize, with jobs and the economy being the No. 1 issue, he’s the candidate for the time.”
For many evangelicals, Gingrich’s contrition after two failed marriages and extramarital affairs show he has changed. The Rev. Michael Youssef of the Church of The Apostles in Atlanta said all people ares sinners.
“I’d rather have somebody who knows how to confess and repent from sin than somebody who would never acknowledge sin, or repent from sin,” Youssef, who supports Gingrich, said.
Youssef said many were upset with Gingrich, but his public acknowledgment of his failings brought many back to the fold.
Besides, he said, “we’re not electing a pastor-in-chief. We’re electing a commander-in-chief. If Newt was applying for a job as a pastor, that would be a different story.”
William Glidewell of Lincolnton, is among those supporting Gingrich.
“He’s had lots of experience around Washington, and if you don’t know your way around Washington, you’ll mess up. I’m not totally happy with lots of our people up there, but he’s got lots of experience in that area,” Glidewell, 79, said of Gingrich.
Though he’s retired after 30 years in the Navy and 15 with the U.S. Postal Service, Glidewell said the economy and jobs and their impact on his grandchildren and great-grandchildren is the most important factor in his choice of a president.
Billie White, 84, of Comer, said he supports Gingrich because of the former House speaker’s experience but is open to changing his mind.
And like Glidewell, White said he won’t be casting his vote for Obama.
“I definitely don’t care for Obama because I think he’s been primed from grade school to do what he’s doing,” White said. “I just don’t trust him, as a Christian. I don’t think he’s on the up-and-up.”
He said he doesn’t like the auto or bank bailouts, and he’s most worried about the rising national debt.
“I can’t go along with what they’re doing in Washington,” he said.
“You can’t spend more than you’ve got. You can’t spend your way out of debt.”
William Davis, 65, of Fort Valley, in contrast, said his support of Obama is based on the job he’s done in the first three years of his presidency.
“I think he’s doing a tremendous job,” said the Norfolk Southern Railroad retiree.
Davis said despite the current president having to “clean up what the last president messed up,” Obama has accomplished some major tasks, namely killing terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and bringing home American troops.
“He’s doing all he can to bring jobs back from across seas now,” Davis said. “As far as I can tell, no one else is even trying -- especially not the Republicans.”
Clay Stafford, 46, of Palmetto, said Romney deserves his vote and that Gingrich does not.
“There are some interesting gentlemanly qualities that Mitt Romney has as far as how he carries himself,” Stafford said. “His business acumen is intriguing to me.”
Stafford said Romney’s work in steadying the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 impressed him as does his background in business development. Gingrich, on the other hand, “is somebody that obviously is an opportunist.”
“I’m not going to vote for him,” Stafford said of Gingrich. “He is obviously a very intelligent person. But if you at his record, you have to wonder if he truly has the best of intentions in mind or if he’s just extending his political career.”
Christina M. Wright and Caryn Grant of The Telegraph, Susan McCord of The Augusta Chronicle, Blake Aued of The Banner-Herald in Athens and Ashley Fielding of The Times of Gainesville contributed to this report.