Atlanta Journal & Constitution, John Spink) MARIETTA DAILY OUT; GWINNETT DAILY POST OUT, Associated Press
ATLANTA — Voters across Georgia were making their picks Tuesday in what could be the biggest test yet for Newt Gingrich as he fights to keep his bid alive for the Republican presidential nomination.
Gingrich was favored to win in Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years. But his chief rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum didn't concede the state, spending time and resources in the hopes of snagging a win or at the very least a share of the state's 76 delegates — the most up for grabs of any state on Super Tuesday.
Turnout at the polls, which were open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., was light to moderate across the state, and elections officials said no problems had been reported at polling stations as of Tuesday afternoon.
For Gingrich, a victory in Georgia and a strong showing in neighboring Tennessee would be a needed boost to his campaign. A loss in the state that fostered his political career would make it difficult for Gingrich to justify staying in the race.
The former House speaker dedicated a considerable amount of time to shore up Georgia, spending much of last week crisscrossing the state to meet with voters as Romney and Santorum focused on Ohio and the other Super Tuesday states.
Gingrich, who now lives in suburban Virginia, entered the contest with solid advantages. He was backed by establishment support built on decades of relationships in Georgia, where many GOP figures still view him with an almost reverential vibe for his role in building the party. He also had the endorsements of Gov. Nathan Deal and former presidential candidate Herman Cain.
Lori Thompson, a 39-year-old mother of two from Sharpsburg, said she supported Gingrich because she believes he shares her values and can get the economy back on track.
"There are people who are skilled and hardworking and want to have jobs, and they just can't get them," she said. "Newt's going to be able to help stimulate the economy. He has a solid plan for doing that. I believe that he is positioned to lead this country and turn around our economic situation."
But Georgia was hardly a given for Gingrich. The state's population has jumped more than 18 percent since he last held office in the late 1990s, a flood of residents who may have little memory of his time in government and who may not feel disloyal to vote for someone else.
And some who do remember said they were not convinced Gingrich was the best choice.
"I was a fan of Newt in the 1990s but it seems like his time has come and gone," said Hugh Long, a 32-year-old attorney from Smyrna who voted for Ron Paul. "He seems erratic. I'm not a fan of his harebrained ideas."
Gingrich has had the wildest campaign of anyone in the race, barely surviving the summer before briefly surging to the top and then falling back after an all-out blitz of negative ads before the Iowa caucuses.
South Carolina gave Gingrich a sorely needed victory on Jan. 21, but there's been little good news for the campaign since. Heading into Tuesday, he was stuck in a losing streak that put him in danger of becoming an also-ran in the race between Romney and Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was leading Gingrich in the delegate count.
After Tuesday, Gingrich planned to focus on next week's contests in Mississippi and Alabama, carrying the same message that he's the best candidate to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
Gingrich's "raw intelligence" is what appealed to Harry Gambill, a Hall County voter who said he had to talk himself into voting for the candidate. Gambill, a retiree who moved to north Georgia four years ago, said he doesn't think Gingrich can win but views him as a better pick than Romney.
"I think Newt is much more charismatic," said Gambill, 66. "Romney seems unable to close the deal. His charisma is lacking."
Santorum made a play for the social conservative vote across the state with visits to north Georgia, while Romney worked to build on a base of support that earned him 30 percent of the vote in the 2008 Republican presidential primary won by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Chris Brown, a 30-year-old law student, was a big supporter of Romney four years ago but this time around he had a tougher decision before backing the former Massachusetts governor. He said he decided to back Romney again because of his focus on the economy and his ability to beat Obama.
"Romney could win. The election is about eight months away and that's about eight lifetimes in politics," said Brown. "The people who think he's been damaged by this primary are wrong. He brings a good message that appeals to individuals and conservatives."
The four-way competition left other voters with a tough, last-minute decision.
Bill Saxman, who runs a bed-and-breakfast with his wife in Savannah, said he was torn between Romney and Santorum until the moment he cast his vote.
"I just went in there and said, 'Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,'" said Saxman, 69. "And Santorum came up as moe."
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Associated Press writers Ray Henry, Dorie Turner and Errin Haines in Atlanta and Russ Bynum in Savannah contributed to this report.
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