DALTON, Ga. — Plotting a comeback, Newt Gingrich looked beyond Tuesday's Republican presidential primaries in Michigan and Arizona to the Southern voters he hopes will rejuvenate his struggling campaign once more, including in his home state.
Gingrich is pinning his hopes on winning Georgia and showing strength in Tennessee, Oklahoma and other Super Tuesday states voting March 6. The former House speaker opened a three-day bus tour in Georgia, which he represented in Congress for 20 years, to fend off rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum on the path to claiming the GOP presidential nomination at the party's convention next summer in the swing state of Florida.
"Winning next Tuesday moves us toward Tampa in a big way," Gingrich said. "Georgia is the biggest group of delegates out there on Super Tuesday so this is a big deal and it really, really matters."
By skipping Tuesday's primaries in Michigan, where the race was close between Romney and Santorum, and in Arizona, where Romney was favored, Gingrich was betting that one of his rivals will emerge as a weaker candidate. That would give Gingrich a chance to become the main alternative to the front-runner and claw his way back into the topsy-turvy race.
Gingrich has acknowledged that winning Georgia is crucial to his campaign but has stopped short of saying a loss there would force him out of race.
Gingrich said Tuesday that taking a week away from the latest primaries to develop his message about gas prices and advance a plan to drive pump prices down to $2.50 a gallon would pay off. He quipped that a supporter told him that President Barack Obama's 9-9-9 plan — a reference to former GOP candidate Herman Cain's tax plan — "is $9.99 a gallon for gasoline."
Speaking to a few hundred supporters in Dalton, he urged them to pass out leaflets at gas stations and have people calculate how much they'd save if gas prices dropped. He also asked them to "go on Facebook and put Newt(equals)$2.50 a gallon."
Without mentioning Gingrich by name, the White House called his energy plan unrealistic.
"There are numerous factors that go into a spike in global oil prices, and any politician who tells you otherwise is not being honest," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "When a politician comes out with a three-point plan to reduce gas prices to $2.50 a gallon, they are blowing smoke."
Targeting Romney, Gingrich said a man in Chattanooga, Tenn., told him the former Massachusetts governor "is the kind of guy who would have fired Christopher Columbus."
"I need your help because the truth is Romney can raise from Wall Street massively more than I can," Gingrich said.
Gingrich has disputed talk that his campaign is in decline, saying he's working methodically to build up his delegate support. Gingrich said he believed he'd do well in the Super Tuesday contests and then go on to win both Alabama and Mississippi, which hold primaries March 13.
Asked on Fox News Channel about speculation that his relatively poor standing could force him to the sidelines, Gingrich said such talk isn't new. "I've been down this road before," he said.
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas