Southern Discomfort
Gingrich faces a critical test down south.

Newt Gingrich speaks at Mississippi State University, March 9, 2012.


Robert Costa

More than a dozen years after leaving the House, where he represented the Atlanta suburbs for two decades, Newt Gingrich returns to the Deep South this week for a critical Dixie test.

Ninety delegates are at stake; more than that, Gingrich needs a pair of victories to remain a viable contender. But winning Alabama and Mississippi will be difficult.

Polls in both states show Gingrich in a strong position, but he is not necessarily the front-runner. According to Rasmussen, Mitt Romney leads in Mississippi, and in Alabama Gingrich barely leads Rick Santorum. Gingrich and his allies, however, are confident that they can survive.

“This is a home game,” says Bob Walker, a senior Gingrich adviser. Romney, he reminds me, recently told an Alabama radio show that this week’s primaries will be an “away game” for him.

In contrast, Walker says, the former House speaker considers the South to be friendly territory. “It was an early decision inside of the campaign to play here,” he says. Gingrich won the South Carolina primary in January and the Georgia primary earlier this month. Those two wins, Walker says says, set up Gingrich for a third South-fueled shot at national contention.

“We knew this would be a long campaign, so we created firewalls,” Walker says. “Those primary wins have kept us credible. We had a few bad months, but we’ve picked up delegates.”

And to certain extent, Walker is right. Gingrich’s  southern strategy has kept him in the hunt. But it has been an imperfect calculation. While he has persevered, Gingrich’s determination to pour his cash into southern states limited his reach in February’s Midwestern caucuses.

“We underestimated Santorum’s strength,” Walker admits. “We certainly underestimated the impact of those three states where Santorum didn’t win delegates” but did make headlines.

Now, the two leading anti-Romney conservative favorites will clash near Gingrich’s home turf. Gingrich’s challenge is not only to beat Romney but also to halt Santorum’s rise.

“If Gingrich can’t win in the South, it’s unclear where he’ll find momentum,” says Ford O’Connell, a GOP consultant who worked on former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour’s 2007 reelection campaign. “It’s his base. Santorum has appeal, but he and Romney do not speak  southern.” The pressure on Gingrich to impress is intense.

Over the weekend, Gingrich told his supporters that the stakes are high. “It’s a big deal,” he said at a campaign rally. “By next Wednesday, this totally wild, roller-coaster race [could] be reset one more time.”

Indeed, after a tough month, watching from afar as Santorum soared, Gingrich sees an opening, a chance to cast his candidacy as the best alternative to Romney. At almost every stop, he argues that he is not running a  southern campaign but leading a broader movement for conservative change.

One related Gingrich gambit — hammering President Obama on energy and kick-starting a national movement to bring down gasoline prices — appears to be working. During speeches, Gingrich repeatedly tells supporters to post “Newt = $2.50 gas” on their Facebook and Twitter pages. Gingrich has earned widespread coverage, and the ire of Democrats, for his assertion.

“He’s a Fort Benning boy, a Columbus guy,” says Representative Lynn Westmoreland (R., Ga.), a Gingrich supporter. But  southern voters, he tells me, are identifying with more than Gingrich’s Peach State roots. “They don’t like all that tap dancing around,” he chuckles, reflecting on the rest of the field, and “Newt is out there, articulating a clear message that’s resonating.”