SAVANNAH, Ga. — The GOP presidential candidates are fighting to win over conservative voters in the Bible Belt as the race takes on a more prominent Southern focus.
After bowing out of recent contests north of the Mason-Dixon line, Newt Gingrich is staking his entire campaign on a big victory Tuesday in Georgia, where the onetime House speaker represented a suburban Atlanta district for 20 years. Rick Santorum is making inroads in Tennessee with a message that the state's evangelical voters should feel right at home with the former Pennsylvania senator's socially conservative views.
Both candidates hope to capitalize on Super Tuesday victories to propel their campaigns forward to Alabama and Mississippi on March 13 and to Louisiana on March 24. None of those Southern states was very hospitable to Mitt Romney during the former Massachusetts governor's White House bid in 2008, so there's prime recruiting ground to entice conservative voters who want an alternative to Romney.
"I fully believe that the South will be a key player," said Joe Dendy, Republican chairman for Cobb County in metro Atlanta. "I think we're going to see a clearer picture between Newt and Rick as to which one the South has seen as more conservative. And that's going to play a big role in the rest of the campaign."
With 76 delegates up for grabs, Georgia holds the biggest prize on Super Tuesday, and Gingrich spent most of the past week touring the state by bus. Still, a victory largely would be seen as meeting expectations and might not generate much momentum.
For Santorum, any victory in the South would come off as a sign of strength.
Jacob Wilkins, a 19-year-old student at a Tennessee Bible college, said he's decided Santorum is the superior candidate "as far as moral issues are concerned." He heard Santorum speak last week at a Baptist church in Powell, Tenn.
"America's a mess and he's got a better hold on what we need than any other candidates," Wilkins said.
Romney hasn't completely conceded the South. He stopped once in Atlanta last month, and his wife stood in for him at an event in the city Thursday. He planned a rally Sunday in Knoxville, Tenn.
In the 2008 race, Romney finished third in each of the upcoming Southern primary states except for Mississippi, which voted after Romney quit the race. He still faces trouble connecting with Southern conservatives, who see him as too moderate, and with evangelicals, who might be troubled by Romney's Mormon faith.
"I'm a Christian and he's a Mormon," said Tamara McGhee, 45, a teacher from Douglasville, Ga., who remains undecided between Gingrich and Santorum. "That may create some bias with me because we have very different religions."
After Super Tuesday, the Southern campaign moves to Alabama and Mississippi, which hold primaries a week later.
"Super Tuesday, I'm sure, will set the tone for Mississippi and Alabama particularly," said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member and Romney supporter from Mississippi.
His uncle, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, has said he won't endorse until the party picks a nominee.
Most of the Republican statewide elected officials in Mississippi, including U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, are backing Romney. Gov. Phil Bryant hasn't made an endorsement since his initial pick, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, ended his run, although he said he is leaning toward Romney.
Dot Ward, a 73-year-old homemaker from Madison, Miss., said she is leaning toward Gingrich.
"I think Newt stands the greatest possibility of being able to debate with him intelligently and present a good case," Ward said. "But then I'm not sure about Newt and his ability to be president. See, that's what worries me the most. I'm unhappy about all of the candidates. And Rick Santorum, I do like very much. I like what he stands for. But I don't think he's got what seems to me the maturity."
Louisiana has received scant attention with its primary still three weeks away. Gov. Bobby Jindal hasn't endorsed anyone since Perry, whom he supported, dropped out. Campaign ads, mailers, bumper stickers and yard signs are largely missing from the state, which has 46 delegates up for grabs.
Jason Dore, executive director of Louisiana's state GOP, expects candidates will spend time and money in his state if the nomination remains undecided by the March 24 primary.
"It's going to be a last-minute thing," Dore said.
The state's Republican voters are staunchly conservative and are expected to favor Gingrich or Santorum in the primary over Romney.
"I would think Louisiana voters would gravitate toward Gingrich as a fellow Southerner and conservative and toward Santorum as a conservative, and not in the Romney camp, except only in the reluctant sense," said Kirby Goidel, a Louisiana State University political science professor.
In Georgia, evangelicals and tea party voters have struggled with their choices.
The group Georgia Right to Life endorsed both Santorum and Gingrich as equally strong abortion foes.
The Christian Coalition of Georgia hasn't endorsed anyone, but its leaders have sent emails opposing Gingrich. Jerry Luquire, the group's president, said Gingrich has too much "anti-family baggage" associated with his three marriages and past infidelities.
"He may have been forgiven by his family and by his God," Luquire said. "But there is still a penalty he has to pay."
Mike Morton, a tea party leader in Rome, said members of his group have been favoring Santorum. But he sees Gingrich gaining ground by focusing on Georgia and promising $2.50-a-gallon gasoline.Comment on this story
"What I kind of see now is the question of Santorum's electability starting to rear its head again," said Morton, who sees the candidate's focus on social issues turning off some fiscal conservatives. "It causes people to think if that's where he is, is he really electable in a cycle where the economy and getting jobs are the top issues?"
Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig in Powell, Tenn., Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.