Georgia debate might be Newt's last chance

Former Georgia congressman looking for home state boost

It’s Newt Gingrich’s only prospect for a big splash before people in Georgia and 10 other states vote on March 6.


The former veteran Georgia congressman’s White House bid has risen and fallen on the national debate stage.


Tonight, he faces fellow Republicans Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul in a nationally televised CNN debate in Mesa, Ariz.


Experts say the former House speaker likely will never get as good a shot at what would be his third comeback.


Another such platform fell through last week when CNN scuttled a March 1 debate after Romney, Paul and Santorum backed out.


Gingrich, Romney and Santorum are about even in the latest poll in Georgia, where more delegates are at stake than in any so-called “Super Tuesday” state. But Gingrich is far behind in other states.


“He’s slipping in national polls,” said Emory University political science professor Merle Black. “It’s kind of his last chance. He needs to debate really well.”


Kennesaw State University political scientist Kerwin Swint agreed.


“He’s in a corner,” Swint said. “He needs something really dramatic to get himself back into contention.”


“He needs a home run,” agreed Atlanta consultant and pollster Matt Towery.


University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said Gingrich looked tired in two recent Florida debates.


“He needs to be lively and vibrant, like he was in South Carolina,” Bullock said.


Gingrich’s standing-ovation-winning performances in two Palmetto State debates widely are credited for his Jan. 21 victory — his only one so far.


But Gingrich also must walk a fine line between boldness and brashness.


“He needs something different,” said Alpharetta political consultant Mark Rountree. “He has to break open a new issue of national importance.”


Bullock said Gingrich must be strong but “not strange or quirky,” which was how the professor said the candidate’s recent call for a moon base widely was seen.


He and Towery said Gingrich must chide Romney and Santorum without sounding strident.


“They will be battling in five minutes,” Towery said. “Newt can hang back a bit and then go after them in a way that shows he’s got presidential bearing.”


Tread lightly, Black advised.


“He needs to be mostly positive,” he said. “Voters are tired of everyone’s attacks.”


Spokeswoman Susan Meyers said Gingrich looks forward to tonight because debates let him show how well he’d run against President Barack Obama.


“Every day,” Meyers said, “there’s something new going on, whether it’s energy policy, gas prices or something in the Middle East. You can expect to hear a lot from him on these issues.”


Romney likely will work tonight to regain the momentum he’s lost to Santorum in recent weeks.


“Romney’s got to do something to stop the bleeding,” Swint said. “I’d expect him to be very aggressive and go after Santorum’s record.”


It would help Romney appeal to rank-and-file Republicans “if he can finally say something that sounds authentic,” Bullock said.


“I’m not sure it’s in him,” the professor added.


Romney may need, as Rountree put it, “a big idea,” or, as Black suggested, “to say something people will remember.”


Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said he “has always done well” in debates.


Tonight, “He will continue to focus on his positive vision for our country and the need to fix this economy and put Americans back to work,” she said.


Because he leads in national polls, Santorum doesn’t need a new game plan, said Savannah College of Art and Design political science professor Robert Eisinger.


“What he’s been doing seems to be working,” Eisinger said. “He’s not likely to change much.”


But Swint said many voters are still uneasy about Santorum’s strong conservative views.


“He needs to get people comfortable with the idea of him being the nominee,” Swint said. “He needs to look mature and seasoned and like he can win.”


Rountree advised Santorum to challenge his main opponents.


“It’s like ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears,’” he said. “He can say Romney’s too liberal; Gingrich is too unreliable, and I’m just right.”


Spokeswoman Alice Stewart said Santorum has done better in recent debates because his major-contender status has drawn him more questions.


“You will continue to hear from him about his vision and his values,” Stewart said, “ ... and also about how much Romney is like Barack Obama.”


Paul, last in most polls and not seen as a contender, apparently can afford to say whatever he wants.


But, because the debate’s in Arizona, he’ll likely talk about how government benefits attract illegal immigrants, said Savannah backer Michael Gaster.


Because there have been so many such debates, fewer people may watch tonight, Eisinger said.


“Even so, the highlights will make news,” he said. “You want to stand out, but you want to stand out positively.”