Newt's Cinderella Return To Georgia, Super Tuesday's Most Delegate-Rich State
February 29, 2012 |
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CARROLLTON, GA. -- He left town as a humble history professor at a rural college. He returned here Tuesday as a candidate for the highest office in the land.
For a few hours, Newt Gingrich traded the rough-and-tumble world of Obama-bashing, GOP-opponent name-calling, and superPAC commercials for something a bit more personal and heart-warming — a sentimental journey to the place where the seeds of his political life were sown in 1970. It was a chance to connect with old friends, former college colleagues, and students who were not even born when he lived here.
It was “Welcome Home, Newt” day at the University of West Georgia, formerly the sleepy rural school called West Georgia College, but now a growing state university with 11,000 students. It had all the trappings of a beauty pageant and it appeared to be a first for Carrollton, a city of 24,000 residents 45 miles west of Atlanta. Mayor Wayne Garner, who is an old friend of the candidate, said it’s the first time a presidential contender has ever come to Carrollton. Not even Georgia native Jimmy Carter campaigned here during his run for the White House in 1976. “We’re glad he’s taken the time to come here and everyone here is excited,” the Mayor said of Gingrich.
What better time for the fantasy to begin than at dusk? But reality has a way of ruining the image. The sleek Red-White-and-Blue “Newt 2012” bus arrived regally on the Carrollton campus in a dismal downpour, an hour behind schedule. Supporters were getting edgy. But when Gingrich and his wife Callista emerged to a chorus of cheers, all was forgotten.
“This visit triggers memories”, the former U.S. House Speaker told the crowd on his trip “home.” The couple was joined by Gingrich’s youngest daughter, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, who grew up in Carrollton.
The stop was officially sponsored by UWG College Republicans, many of whom were there to wish Gingrich well. JJ Jackson, neatly-dressed with not a hair out of place, is chairman of the group. “This evening means a lot to me. I’m a very passionate Republican and I look forward to meeting someone running for president from that party,” he said.
Then it was time for business. The candidate and his spouse showed their faces at what the Gingrich campaign called a “meet and greet” in a University gymnasium. Visitors were asked to contribute at least $50 to keep the campaign going. Adviser Gordon Austin said events like these generally seek $500 from donors but this one was different. “This was a much-lower level because there are so many people who have worked with Newt but who may not be able to afford $500,” Austin added. “We’ll be happy if we can raise some money.”
As his advisers counted the dollars, the candidate and his wife posed for pictures with every one of the 250 people who showed up, some still wet from walking through the rain. Gingrich said later it was one of the longest photo sessions he’s spent so far. One of those in the line was retired U.S. Marine Roger Knowles. When he left the Corps, Knowles went back to college and Newt Gingrich was one of his professors. “He’s the man we need now with the current economic conditions,” Knowles said. “We’ve got to turn things around and Newt knows how to do it.”
The trip here came a week to the day before Super Tuesday, when voters in ten states, including Georgia, cast ballots in primaries and caucuses. It’s the biggest day so far in the 2012 campaign and the Peach State is the biggest prize, with 76 GOP delegates at stake. Gingrich has been limping badly since he won the South Carolina Primary in January but he has vowed to remain in the race. He hopes to win here and in neighboring Tennessee to keep his campaign alive and relevant, hoping to make it to the Republican National Convention this August in Tampa, Fla., as a viable contender. And at this point, he’s ahead in the polls.
Finally, it was time to reminisce during a free forum for all at a college ballroom but not before comments by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, the chairman of Gingrich’s campaign in the state. Deal told the 600 people, mostly avid and enthusiastic students, he was pleased to be part of the homecoming event and a proud supporter on Gingrich. “We are fortunate to have someone of Newt Gingrich’s character and leadership running for president,” the governor noted. The few in the crowd who did not support the candidate rolled their eyes at mention of the words “character” and “leadership” when referring to Gingrich.
The presidential candidate first came to college in 1970, where he became an assistant history professor. He switched to teaching geography in 1974. His daughter described the first two failed races for the House of Representatives and of his ultimately-successful 1978 bid. She did not mention that Gingrich also decided to bolt town after the college denied him tenure.
The man who touts his conservative values today doesn’t talk much about his more-moderate past. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has examined his previous positions from years gone by. It found that Gingrich was actually a supporter of Nelson Rockefeller (a socially-liberal Republican) in the late 1960s. When Gingrich first ran for Congress in 1974 he was decidedly “green”, espousing energy conservation and research on alternative fuels. In the 1980s, the paper says he opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Never mind. Most of those in the gym loved every minute of Gingrich’s tough-talking conservative speech. Many hung on his every rhetorical flourish. Others recalled his mastery during the 26 Republican debates since mid-2011. Current students may not remember that Professor Gingrich spent hours on this campus in the early 1970s working with the college debating team to hone his skills.
Now he railed against President Barack Obama’s failings, both to develop a national energy policy here at home and for his inability to deal from a position of strength with Arab countries, like Afghanistan and Iran. Gingrich touted his plan to get gasoline prices down to $2.50 a gallon and few in the room doubted he could achieve that. After all, he balanced the federal budget four years in a row as House Speaker, didn’t he?
With the end of his 45-minute talk, the witching hour was fast approaching. The Cinderella event was coming to a close. The candidate, his family, and campaign aides boarded the coach to take them away from the fantasy and back to the real world of back-biting and hard-core politics. A full day of campaigning around Atlanta lay ahead on Wednesday.
But Carrollton and its university were left with a type of glass slipper. A presidential candidate had come calling, the first ever to do so. Win, lose, or draw, love him or hate him, Newton Leroy Gingrich had made their day.
George Bauer is a print and broadcast journalist living in Atlanta, Georgia.