Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich stops to answer a question as he leaves a town hall meeting Wednesday at the Atlanta Marriott Gwinnett Place in Duluth.
DULUTH -- It's one thing to watch a presidential candidate in a debate on TV.
"I wanted to come and listen live," said Sahar Hekmati, who drove for more than an hour from Henry County Wednesday to be in the audience for the first in a series of presidential town hall meetings in Gwinnett. "It's a blessing."
For many of the hundreds of people in attendance at the Gwinnett Place Marriott, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was a familiar face. In fact, a couple of decades ago, he represented the area.
But to listen to him campaign for the White House was a rare treat.
"This is my first time to see Newt up close," said Brandon Holcomb, who is undecided about who he will vote for in next year's GOP primary. "That is one of the reasons I came."
Gingrich spent an hour talking about issues from national security to health care and the environment, professing what he believes are common sense solutions. He brought the crowd to applause with ideas on adding revenue without increasing taxes and to laughter with digs on everything from czars to the Environmental Protection Agency.
He challenged a college student to help set up a coalition on his campus to support the idea of personal social security accounts, and he asked people to call their friends in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, where primaries are just two months away.
"He's a straight-forward guy and pretty level-headed," Duluth man William See said of the former congressman. A fan of incumbent President Barack Obama, See said curiousity brought him to the GOP event and convinced him he could back Gingrich, that is, if he and Obama could be on the same team.
See's business partner Paulette Boyd said she liked the way Gingrich is reaching out to the public for ideas, using his website, newt.org.
"I like that approach," she said. "I want us to be able to have input."
Leaders of the 7th Congressional District of the GOP have invited all the party's presidential candidates to Gwinnett, a stronghold for the party. They expect to hold more events in the coming months.