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Capitol Impact

Georgia’s Republican voters will be choosing their favorites in the presidential preference primary coming up on March 6, and it looks like those could be very important ballots. As one of several primaries set for “Super Tuesday,†Georgia could have a big impact on which candidate gets the Republican nomination. That did not seem likely a few weeks ago when the primary season was thought to be nearing its close. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, according to the experts, was on the verge of closing the sale with the Republican base, which would make the March 6 primaries irrelevant. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, it seemed, was sinking fast, an impression that was reinforced by his weak finishes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

As he has done so often over the past year, however, Gingrich came roaring back. He found his voice in South Carolina, performed well in two debates and whipped Romney among Palmetto State voters by 12 percentage points.

Gingrich is back in the battle and looking better in national polls of likely Republican voters. The man who got his political start as a Georgia congressman still has a shot at becoming the GOP nominee for president. The prospect of that has set off alarm bells among the power brokers who make up the Republican Party establishment.

Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who’s endorsed Gingrich, alluded to those misgivings on a trip through Atlanta last week.

“The establishment has panicked,†Thompson said. “He (Romney) was the anointed frontrunner for a long, long time, and quite a bit of panic has set in.â€

Romney began raising pointed questions about Gingrich’s mental stability during the week leading up to the Florida primary.

“He’s gone from pillar to post almost like a pinball machine, from item to item in a way which is highly erratic,†Romney remarked. “It does not suggest a stable, thoughtful course, which is normally associated with leadership.â€

I asked Thompson if this description of Gingrich as “erratic†and “unstable†was a fair characterization.

“Newt is just Newt,†Thompson replied.

He is correct about that. Gingrich’s personality in this campaign isn’t any different from the political face he has shown the world over the past 35 years. He’s as feisty, outrageous and sarcastic as he ever was. Those qualities appeal to many voters looking for someone who will take the fight to President Barack Obama in the fall campaign, but they can also turn off some people. We saw some of that division during Thompson’s visit to Atlanta, where he met briefly with state Capitol reporters to make a few comments on behalf of Gingrich.

Several legislators who support Gingrich stood with Thompson at the news conference, including state representatives Joe Wilkinson, Sharon Cooper, Harry Geisinger and Charlice Byrd, along with senators Barry Loudermilk, Steve Gooch, Judson Hill and John Albers. Another Republican lawmaker, Lynne Riley, wasn’t nearly as supportive of Gingrich. She sent out an email stating, “Newt Gingrich has spent the last decade running from his Georgia roots and into the arms of the Washington insider establishment. We need a steady, reliable, conservative leader who can beat Barack Obama and turn around our broken economy—not a lobbyist and former legislator who left Congress in disgrace.â€

Gingrich has always provoked those kinds of feelings both among people who like him and people who detest him. That could be one of the reasons why his campaign has bounced up and down so much.

I’m writing this column a few days before the Florida primary, another election in which the experts are predicting a victory for Romney that could wrap up the GOP nomination. Maybe they’re right this time. I’m still hesitant to make any final predictions.