The results of a recent Mason-Dixon Polling and Research poll about the upcoming primary show that 57 percent of prospective GOP voters have a favorable view of Gingrich in general, although 48 percent have a negative view of his work as a consultant for Freddie Mac and 41 percent have a negative view of his marital issues.
Add all those numbers up, and Mason-Dixon in a statewide poll found that Gingrich, who was House Speaker when he represented the state in the late 1990s, was the choice of 43 percent of likely Georgia voters. It’s important to note, of course, that Georgia has an open primary system, and with President Barack Obama running unopposed on the Democratic primary ballot, some Democrats are likely to vote in the GOP primary if for no other reason than creating a little havoc.
But Gingrich, who has been calling himself the only “true conservative” in the race, now finds Santorum, another conservative favorite, eating into his lead in Georgia after Santorum swept last Tuesday’s primaries in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri and catapulted into the national media spotlight.
Those victories changed the dynamics heading into the Georgia primary. The Mason-Dixon poll, which showed Gingrich at 43 percent in Georgia, was taken before Santorum’s sweep. A Thursday night poll of likely Georgia voters by Rosetta Stone Communications and Landmark Communications had Gingrich with 35 percent and Santorum in second place with 26 percent. Romney was at 16 percent, Paul had 5 percent and 18 percent said they were still undecided.
Georgia voters face another hurdle when deciding which of the four Republicans still in the race they want to be their standard bearer in November: Any reader who examined the sample ballot that this newspaper posted on its website last week noticed that there are nine names on the GOP ballot. And, just as they are preparing to finalize their decisions, Greater Romans must brace for the coming tsunami of negative advertising that is almost guaranteed to flood the Atlanta and Chattanooga television markets — Tennessee is holding its primaries on March 6, as well — beginning sometime next week. And if Georgia is anything like Florida, where residents complained of four or more robo-calls a day from candidates, Greater Romans may want to stay away from their telephones and communicate with family and friends by email or text message until March 7, when the winner of the Republican primary will be known.
A number of local Republicans have told this newspaper that the negativity of the “catfight” between Romney and Gingrich could clear the way for a surprise Santorum win in Georgia. “Mitt just calls out the dogs and destroys people. He and Newt both went at it, but voters want to hear the candidates lay it out there, to say what they believe,” said Tom Saltino, a Santorum supporter. The negative tone of the race so far, and the seemingly nonstop news coverage has been grating on other Rome Republican, as well.
The stakes are high for all four of the GOP hopefuls remaining in the race. Ten states are up for grabs on Super Tuesday, March 6, and with 76 delegates, Georgia is the richest state in the mix, although Tennessee, with 58, is also in play.
The dynamics of the race are sure to change before Super Tuesday. Three states —Arizona, Michigan and Washington — hold primaries between now and then, and a sweep by any one of the candidates still in the race could affect how Super Tuesday goes.
While incessant news coverage and attack ads may be bothering some Greater Romans, the swift changes in the Georgia polling numbers show that many voters are paying attention to the campaign and watching Santorum’s surge.
Two things are clear: One, the GOP campaign in Georgia is going to get a lot louder —and dirtier — before it’s over. The second is that no one should underestimate the power of the state’s conservative voters. In 1992, Pat Buchanan did not win a single primary in his challenge to incumbent President George H.W. Bush, but his strongest showing was in Georgia. Buchanan carried Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, which at the time included Floyd County.
This region’s conservative — and contrarian — streak could play into Santorum’s strong suit, no matter how the numbers seem to be trending toward Gingrich.