Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is facing his most important challenge yet — winning Georgia on Super Tuesday. Georgia is considered Gingrich's home because he represented parts of the state in Congress for 20 years, but he hasn't lived there for more than a decade.
Over the weekend, Gingrich held several rallies, including one in Peachtree City, south of Atlanta, where he stressed that this area has long supported him.
"It is great to be home," Gingrich told the crowd. "I believe that I carried Fayette County in every single election, including the two that I lost."
Gingrich admitted that running for the Republican nomination is a tough fight, but he said he is prepared.
"This has been a little bit like riding a roller coaster. In fact, I tell folks it's a little bit like the roller coaster at Disney that's in the dark," he said. "If you've ever ridden Space Mountain, you don't know what's coming next. You don't know where you were, and you're not sure where you're going."
Gingrich called the contest a "wide-open race" and said recent polls prove that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is not the inevitable nominee. As for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, he said it remains to be seen how Santorum does in the next few weeks.
"But the fact is I am the only candidate in this race who has stood nose to nose with presidents of both parties and not flinched," Gingrich said.
Both Gingrich and Santorum are going after voters seeking an alternative to Romney. Sunday night, Santorum appeared at First Redeemer, a Baptist megachurch north of Atlanta in the heart of Gingrich's old congressional district. Even Santorum was surprised at the reception he got from thousands who crammed into the sanctuary.
Santorum didn't talk about his GOP challengers but instead criticized President Obama, saying the federal government is overreaching, oppressive and threatening religious freedom.
"This is why this election here in the state of Georgia is so important," Santorum said. "You've got the biggest delegate prize on Super Tuesday, the biggest day of this primary election. What are you going to do?"
Four years ago, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke at this same church and ultimately won the Georgia primary. It's clear Santorum hopes to capture that same religious conservative block, and many voters here are behind the former senator.
"I was really impressed. I've liked Santorum from the beginning, but hearing him speak really inspired me more," said Georgia voter Lisa McBryant. She said she likes Gingrich but that she leans more toward Santorum's conservative values.
Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said to win here, Gingrich has to get the support of those who classify themselves as very conservative and somewhat conservative. And he has to regain the momentum he had in January and in South Carolina, whose primary he won Jan. 21.
"In order for Gingrich to really do well, he'd have to kind of bring back a lot of voters that have looked at him and looked away again," Black said. "That's very, very hard in politics. So he needs a big win in Georgia in order to set off the possibility of any kind of Southern strategy."
Gingrich also has to combat negative ads that started running here last week, well ahead of the March 6 primary, some paid for by the superPAC that backs Romney.
Still, Gingrich has his solid backers. At the rally in Peachtree City, Ellen Rodriguez said she has known Gingrich for more than three decades.
"Our sons and his daughters sat on the floor and stuffed envelopes for him, so we have voted for him every time he's ever run," Rodriguez said.
Gingrich is planning a bus trip around the state next week to attract new supporters and shore up votes from his former constituents. And while he acknowledges a loss in Georgia would be a problem, he says it wouldn't force him out of the race.