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Thursday, March 1, 2012 - 11:00am

Gingrich Tour Rare Among Hopefuls

It's a rainy morning and US Congressman Jack Kingston is joining the mayor of suburban Richmond Hill near Savannah for the ribbon-cutting at a new physical therapy business.

There are balloons, giant scissors and lots of hand shakes and smiles.

If you're running for mayor or Congress, showing up at these kind of events is make-or-break.

But at the presidential level, it's the kind of face-to-face campaigning reserved for early primary states, like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich plans to break that mold when he visits Savannah and Brunswick Friday.

The coastal visit is a bit rare.

Voters outside Metro Atlanta are used to presidential candidates bypassing them.

Kingston says, by the time Georgia gets a vote, presidential hopefuls mostly are interested big media and big money.

"If you have a fundraiser down here, you probably can raise twice as much in the same amount of time in Atlanta," Kingston says. "But there are votes down here, this is the home of Ft. Stewart, Gulfstream, the port. This is an area of vital economic importance to Georgia."

Kingston is supporting Gingrich.

The Savannah Republican came into office during the mid-90's GOP sweep led by his fellow Georgian.

He says, the candidate's visit could sway voters.

And in a tight race, a few votes here and there could be key to Georgia's 76 delegates, the biggest prize in next week's Super Tuesday vote.

Savannah College of Art and Design School of Liberal Arts Dean and political commentator Robert Eisinger says, candidates select cities they visit for many reasons, but chiefly money.

"It's not as much about trying to garner the votes of those in the audience as it is, the people in the audience are already you're fans and you're trying to extract $500, $1,000 or $2,000 contributions from them," Eisinger says.

Those dollars then could push undecided voters on TV.

At a recent meeting of Republican activists in Savannah, there didn't seem to be many undecided.

College student Jenny Lambeth of Pooler supports Ron Paul but says, she could switch if she saw a candidate in peson.

"I would be able to listen to what they had to say more candidly than the debates that are being aired on TV," Lambeth says. "They're trying to cover specifically just their talking points on those. That would be a big selling point for me."

Stage producer Chuck Levalle of Savannah also is supporting Ron Paul.

He says, you gain a lot by seeing a politician face-to-face.

"It's a lot easier to paint a pretty face and throw some lipstick on that pig on television interviews or anything of that nature when you know you're going to be in the public eye," Levalle says. "But when you're talking to somebody, there's no preparation for a conversation."

Many die-hard political junkies here drive to South Carolina or Florida to see the candidates when they visit those states in earlier primaries.

Former Chatham County Republican Party chief Jerry Loupee says, he didn't have to do that this year.

He made his presidential choice four years ago when Mitt Romney visited Savannah.

"Mitt really reminded me a lot, talking to him personally, of President Reagan," Loupee says.

Loupee says, he met Gingrich once and got a cool reception.

He doesn't plan to see him now.

Still, he agrees, seeing a candidate in person is the best way to know about him or her.

"Like I've had many people tell me, 'Well, I wish Mitt would come through with more personality when he does these debates. He doesn't seem always personable or at ease,'" Loupee says. "But, body language and the rest comes through in person that you don't see on the TV tube."

Rick Santorum was in Atlanta Thursday.

The Ron Paul and Mitt Romney campaigns have not announced any plans for their candidates to visit the state before Tuesday.

Gingrich's coastal swing will take him to Republican Party headquarters in Savannah and Marshside Grill in Brunswick.

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