With Super Tuesday just two days away and with Georgia’s 76 Republican presidential nomination delegates representing the biggest prize up for grabs among 10 state contests, all four GOP candidates are scrambling for a strong showing in the Peach State.
Newt Gingrich, leading in recent Georgia polls, is banking on his home-state status to draw support away from Rick Santorum, running second in Georgia but fresh from strong finishes in other states. Mitt Romney seeks to shore up his status as putative national front-runner, and Ron Paul soldiers on in hope of a major upset.
No one will know the real outcome until Tuesday night, but The Telegraph turned to Republican Party chairs in Middle Georgia for their perspective on likely results, both locally and statewide. Opinions were mixed.
“Honestly, it’s all over the board,” said Joannah Hollis, Baldwin County Republican Party chairwoman. “I do know that there are some Ron Paul enthusiasts that have shown some activism in the county.”
She’s heard from some that if Paul doesn’t get the national nomination, his local backers may vote for a third party in the fall or sit out the election, she said.
“That is obviously disheartening,” Hollis said.
She expects Gingrich to take Georgia overall, though perhaps not by much. Romney may not garner much support outside of urban areas, Hollis said.
She will support the eventual Republican nominee, no matter who it is -- and she’s not giving away her preference now.
“I tend to keep my vote private, but I will be voting nonetheless,” Hollis said.
Suzanne Wood, chairwoman of the Bibb County Republican Party, thinks Gingrich has a “really good chance” of winning the state, partly due to his Georgia ties.
“It’s funny about Newt: You either love him or you hate him,” she said.
Wood thinks enough Georgians love Gingrich to give him the overall victory, but locally, she’s not so sure.
“I’ve not heard one name dominate in Macon,” she said. Representatives of all four candidates have been active in Bibb County.
And all four of those are still trying to convince her.
“I’m still undecided, quite frankly, and I might still be undecided when I walk in there on Tuesday,” Wood said.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who nearly beat Romney in his home state of Michigan, should present a hot challenge to Georgia’s native candidate in Crawford County, predicts local Republican Chairman Charles Cook.
”It’s going to be a close call, I think, between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum,” he said. “I really, personally, myself, think it’s going to be Santorum.”
That reflects conversations Cook has heard, and his own preferences.
“I’m going to go with Santorum,” he said.
The statewide result is uncertain, but Cook said he’ll be glad when a clear winner emerges, whoever it is.
“Just get it here and get it over with,” he said.
“I honestly believe by talking to people in my local party, here and throughout the state, I believe Newt Gingrich will take my county as well as the state,” said Houston County Republican Party Chairman Aaron Hufstetler,
He thinks Santorum will draw away some votes that would otherwise go to Gingrich, but Gingrich should be able to prevail, he said.
Hufstetler would like to see “good conservative people” of any political affiliation turn out to vote, he said.
“That’s the only way we’re going to take our country back,” Hufstetler said.
Party rules don’t allow him to voice his personal support for a primary candidate, he said.
For now, Jones County Republican Chairwoman Kimberly Schwartz is using recent poll numbers to predict that Gingrich will win the state and, perhaps, Jones County as well.
“But it’s a long time between now and next Tuesday and anything can happen,” she said.
Like Hufstetler, Schwartz said party rules won’t allow her to state her personal choice. But she doesn’t see a protracted, contentious primary as a bad thing.
It’s “doing what it’s supposed to do, vetting everyone thoroughly,” Schwartz said.
Anything goes, both in Laurens County and statewide, said Republican Party Chairman Hugh Lentile III.
“Unfortunately, I have no information to make that sort of assumption,” he said. “It’s so fluid right now it’s unbelievable.”
That pervasive uncertainty is personal as well.
“To be honest with you, I don’t have a candidate in mind at this point,” Lentile said. For a snap decision, he’d choose Santorum -- but that could change before he pulls the lever on Tuesday, he said.
Phil Viviani, Republican chairman for Monroe County, said he has “no idea” how the primary will turn out -- and he’s not asking or encouraging anyone to support a particular GOP candidate.
“That’s the way we like it. We don’t tell anybody how to vote,” he said.
The primary process should “play itself out,” whatever result that brings, Viviani said.
But his hands-off attitude hasn’t been mirrored by the various campaigns.
“I’ve heard from Romney people, Gingrich people, Santorum people -- I’ve heard from all of them,” Viviani said.
“Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have a lot of support in Peach County and in south Georgia,” said Tom Morrill, Republican chairman in Peach County. That support stems from Tea Party members and the high concentration of evangelical Christians, he said.
“I myself am supporting Mitt Romney, and I think Mitt will do very well in the Atlanta area,” Morrill said.
All three of those candidates have their respective strengths, so it’s hard to pick a statewide winner, he said.
“I just hope that we have a really good turnout for the primary,” Morrill said. “I think whoever comes out with the Republican nomination, we will all work to support them in the general election.”
The nature of Twiggs County’s electorate makes it hard to predict a local winner, Republican Party Chairman Emmitt Sherling said.
“Very few people admit that they vote Republican, but they’ll probably be coming out of the closet,” he said. “I know so far the advance voting has been a little slow. There has not been that large of a turnout, but that’s no indication of how it’s going to go.”
Nor could he predict a winner statewide.
“I really haven’t talked to that many people outside of Twiggs right now, so I can’t say,” Sherling said.
He wouldn’t state a personal preference but said he’s looking forward to the chance to participate.
“I work hard to get voters out, but who they vote for, that’s up to them,” Sherling said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.