COLUMBUS, Ga. — Newt Gingrich took the stage at the Georgia Republican Party state convention Saturday wearing a Mitt Romney sticker, focusing his attacks on President Obama and attempting to energize the crowd around his former Republican rival.
The former U.S. House speaker’s endorsement of Romney was met with mixed reaction as dozens of Ron Paul supporters frequently interrupted Gingrich’s remarks, booing and shouting Paul’s name.
Gingrich also acknowledged this wasn’t the way he wanted things to turn out, but after thanking the party faithful for their role in his victory in the GOP primary in March, he told them the time has come for party unity.
“My intent was to come here wearing a Gingrich sticker,” he said. “But I want to make a key point, including to those of our friends who are still deeply engaged and deeply emotional: Every person in this room has an absolute obligation to help defeat Barack Obama for re-election,” Gingrich said to cheers and applause.
“To every conservative, everywhere in America: When your choice on the one hand is Barack Obama, and your choice on the other hand is Mitt Romney, no serious conservative could possibly believe that electing Barack Obama is acceptable ... for America.”
Gingrich’s endorsement of the former Massachusetts governor was a marked departure from just a few months ago, when Gingrich sought to prove why he would make a better Republican presidential candidate than Romney, regarded as the presumptive nominee.
Romney finished second to Gingrich in Georgia’s March primary and placed third place four years ago behind ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Obama lost Georgia in 2008 to McCain by five percentage points.
Those at the convention elected a slate of 31 “at-large” delegates to the national convention Aug. 27-30 in Tampa, Fla., along with a committeeman and committeewoman to serve on the Republican National Committee.
Georgia will send 76 delegates to the national convention. Near the end of the two-day meeting in Columbus, delegates adopted a resolution committing their support “to whoever our nominee will be in August” and pledged to “work as hard as possible to turn out the vote for Republicans in November.”
Republicans continue to dominate state politics, with the GOP in control of the governor’s office, Legislature and all statewide elected offices.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who supported Gingrich’s candidacy and has not switched his support to Romney, made no mention of presidential politics on Saturday, instead focusing on maintaining a conservative agenda for Georgia.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry before he dropped out after a poor showing early in the race. Cagle said after meeting with Perry earlier this week, he saw Perry’s approach as looking forward and urged the crowd to do the same.
“All of us have got to stand shoulder to shoulder, united as a party for a common cause ... if we’re going to see the America that all of us have fought for,” Cagle said.
State Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, supported Gingrich during the primary but said Saturday he plans to publicly support Romney.
“I’ll put his signs out when I put mine out,” said Gooch, who, along with the rest of the Georgia Legislature, is up for re-election this year. “I’ll do what I can to help the party and the candidate. He’s the clear choice between the two.”
Gooch said Gingrich’s support of Romney will be critical in galvanizing the state, pointing out that Gingrich won all but three of Georgia’s 159 counties on March 6.
Debbie Dooley, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, said she wasn’t enthused with any of the Republican field initially, but supported Gingrich in South Carolina. But as she watched his fortunes fade, she began to look to cast her support elsewhere.
She said she will cast her delegate vote for Romney if Gingrich releases them and Romney becomes the nominee at the Republican convention in Tampa.
“I didn’t need Newt to drop out for me to vote for Romney,” Dooley said Saturday. “I think Mitt Romney can get this country working again.”
But when asked if she was excited about a Romney candidacy, Dooley was less emphatic.
“I’m excited about defeating President Obama,” she said. “And I’m looking to see who his (vice presidential running mate) pick is. That is something that could get conservatives excited.”