Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during a Gwinnett Chamber breakfast at the 1818 Club in Duluth on Tuesday morning.
HOW GWINNETT VOTED
Gingrich - 47%
Romney - 29%
Santorum - 17%
ATLANTA — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed a decisive victory in Gwinnett and the Georgia Republican primary Tuesday, a desperately needed win in his former home state as he looks to make another comeback in the GOP presidential race.
Gingrich pinned all his presidential ambitions on Tuesday’s vote in Georgia, spending much of the week campaigning in the state rather than the other nine Super Tuesday states. The go-for-broke strategy paid off, as preliminary results showed Gingrich with 47.4 percent of the vote with 96 percent of precincts reporting.
In Gwinnett, his numbers were nearly the same — 35,133 votes with all precincts reporting, for 47.33 percent.
Mitt Romney had a decisive advantage for second here, with nearly 29 percent of the vote, compared to Rick Santorum’s 16.7 percent. The vote was tighter statewide, with 25 percent for Romney and 20 percent for Santorum.
Ron Paul, who didn’t actively campaign in the state, trailed in fourth-place with 6 percent of the vote, both in Gwinnett and Georgia returns.
The win was little surprise, with even Gingrich acknowledging that a defeat in the state he represented in Congress for 20 years could have crippled his presidential campaign. Gingrich made winning a chunk of Georgia’s 76 delegates — the most of any Super Tuesday states — the center of his campaign strategy.
But the win may have come at a price. Santorum, who is vying to be the conservative alternative to Romney, won neighboring Tennessee and Oklahoma. And early returns showed Gingrich trailing his two chief rivals in the other Super Tuesday states.
Still, Gingrich sounded an upbeat tone during a speech to supporters at a metro Atlanta hotel.
“I believe that I am the one candidate who has the ability to debate Barack Obama decisively,” said Gingrich, who said a loss in Georgia would have left him with “no credibility.”
Romney and Santorum also fought for Georgia, spending time and resources in the state as they looked for the win or at least to snag some delegates. Santorum made a play for the social conservative vote with visits to north Georgia, while Romney focused on earning votes in metro Atlanta. He was in Snellville on Sunday.
The victory gave Gingrich at least 23 delegates, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many delegates the other candidates would pick up under state party rules.
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 had been leading Gingrich in the delegate count.
His latest comeback strategy was centered on notching a commanding victory in Georgia and a solid showing in neighboring Tennessee, where returns showed him at a distant third place. 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 Obama in November.
Gingrich, who now lives in suburban Virginia, entered the contest with solid advantages, including 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 some who do remember Gingrich said they were not convinced he 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 Paul.
Romney’s campaign sought to build on a base of support that earned him 30 percent of the vote in Georgia’s 2008 primary.
Chris Brown, a 30-year-old law student, voted for Romney four years ago and decided to back him 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.”
As the statewide winner, Gingrich automatically earns three delegates. He’ll also take a big chunk of the 31 at-large delegates awarded proportionally to candidates who tally more than 20 percent of the vote, and a slice of the other 42 that are doled out based on how each candidate does in Georgia’s 14 congressional districts.
Many of the voters interviewed said they hoped for a speedy end to the primary, which could drag on to the GOP convention in August. Some confessed that the four-way competition left them with agonizing last-minute decisions.
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.”
Associated Press writers Ray Henry, Dorie Turner, Kate Brumback and Errin Haines in Atlanta and Russ Bynum in Savannah contributed to this report.