Voters line up to cast their ballots iat Medlock Bridge...

Voters line up to cast their ballots iat Medlock Bridge Elementary School in Johns Creek, Ga. (March 6, 2012) Credit: AP

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won the Georgia Republican primary Tuesday, claiming a desperately needed win in his former home state in his bid to make another comeback in the GOP presidential race.

Gingrich pinned all his presidential ambitions on Tuesday's vote in Georgia, spending much of the week campaigning in the state rather than the other nine Super Tuesday states. The go-for-broke strategy paid off.

The victory was no surprise, but even Gingrich acknowledged that an embarrassing defeat in the state he represented in Congress for 20 years could have crippled his presidential campaign. Gingrich made winning a chunk of Georgia's 76 delegates the center of his plans to outlast his opponents and set up a one-on-one matchup with Mitt Romney, the race's front-runner.

Romney and Rick Santorum also fought for Georgia, spending time and resources in the state in the days before Tuesday's vote. Supporters of the two candidates, along with Ron Paul, fought to peel off delegates from Gingrich.

Gingrich picked up at least 23 delegates by winning the Georgia primary. The rest will be divided up under state party rules.

Turnout at the polls was light to moderate across the state, and elections officials said no major problems had been reported at polling stations.

Gingrich has had the wildest campaign of anyone in the race, barely surviving the summer before briefly surging to the top and then falling back after an all-out blitz of negative ads before the Iowa caucuses.

South Carolina gave Gingrich a sorely needed victory on Jan. 21, but there's been little good news for the campaign since. Heading into Tuesday, he was stuck in a losing streak that put him in danger of becoming an also-ran in the race between Romney and Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who had been leading Gingrich in the delegate count.

His latest comeback strategy was centered on notching a commanding victory in Georgia, which awarded the most delegates on Super Tuesday, and solid showings in neighboring Tennessee. After Tuesday, Gingrich planned to focus on next week's contests in Mississippi and Alabama, carrying the same message that he's the best candidate to challenge President Barack Obama in November.

Gingrich, who now lives in suburban Virginia, entered the contest with solid advantages. He was backed by establishment support built on decades of relationships in Georgia, where many GOP figures still view him with an almost reverential vibe for his role in building up the party. He also has the endorsements of state Republican heavyweights, including Gov. Nathan Deal and former presidential candidate Herman Cain.

Lori Thompson, a 39-year-old mother of two from Sharpsburg, said she supported Gingrich because she believes he shares her values and can get the economy back on track.

"There are people who are skilled and hardworking and want to have jobs, and they just can't get them," she said. "Newt's going to be able to help stimulate the economy. He has a solid plan for doing that. I believe that he is positioned to lead this country and turn around our economic situation."

But Georgia was hardly a given for Gingrich. The state's population has jumped more than 18 percent since he last held office in the late 1990s, a flood of residents who may have little memory of his time in government and who may not feel disloyal to vote for someone else.

And some who do remember said they were not convinced Gingrich was the best choice.

"I was a fan of Newt in the 1990s but it seems like his time has come and gone," said Hugh Long, a 32-year-old attorney from Smyrna who voted for Ron Paul. "He seems erratic. I'm not a fan of his harebrained ideas."

Santorum made a play for the social conservative vote across the state with visits to north Georgia, while Romney worked to build on a base of support that earned him 30 percent of the vote in the 2008 Republican presidential primary won by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Chris Brown, a 30-year-old law student, was a big supporter of Romney four years ago but this time around he was eager to vote for Cain, who pulled out of the race in December. He said he decided to back Romney again because of his focus on the economy and his ability to beat Obama.

"Romney could win. The election is about eight months away and that's about eight lifetimes in politics," said Brown. "The people who think he's been damaged by this primary are wrong. He brings a good message that appeals to individuals and conservatives."

Some voters, however, said the four-way competition left them with a tough last-minute decision.

Harry Gambill, a 66-year-old retiree in Hall County, said he wished he could blend Romney's economic savvy with Gingrich's "raw intelligence" to create the ideal candidate. He said he wound up voting for Gingrich even though he doesn't think he can win the nomination.

Bill Saxman, who runs a bed-and-breakfast with his wife in Savannah, said he was torn between Romney and Santorum until the moment he cast his vote.

"I just went in there and said, 'Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,'" said Saxman, 69. "And Santorum came up as moe."

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