It wasn't so long ago that the Republican Party in Georgia was just an afterthought, and Democrats were in firm control of all the levers of state government. Back then, Newt Gingrich and other die-hard GOP stalwarts ventured across the state with the far-fetched message that Republicans could reverse the tide.
Now with commanding majorities in the Statehouse and control of all statewide offices, Gingrich is hoping his vision for how the GOP could overcome decades of Democratic dominance in Georgia will pay dividends. He sorely needs a victory when his home state votes Tuesday, along with a big chunk of its 76 delegates, to prove his stumbling presidential bid has staying power.
Many Republican figures in Georgia still credit him with championing conservative policies, outlining a framework for what a GOP majority in the state could accomplish and broadcasting talking points to a generation of up-and-coming conservative leaders. He's also applauded for lobbying conservative Democrats, like then-Rep. Nathan Deal, to switch parties.
"Everyone else was trying to lose as slowly as possible, and to die with dignity at the Alamo. He was talking confidently that the Republican majority in Georgia, in the South and nationally was right around the corner," said Ralph Reed, a veteran Georgia GOP operative who founded the national Faith and Freedom Coalition. "On the one hand it was crazy, but on the other it was just the most exciting thing you've ever heard."
Georgia is hardly a given for Gingrich. He has led in recent polls, but rivals Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have spent time and money here. The state's population also has shot up more than 18 percent since Gingrich last held office here, in the late 1990s, a flood of residents who may have little memory of his time in government.
That has forced the campaign, which once confidently viewed Georgia as a guarantee, to refocus. Gingrich has spent most of this week in Georgia, valuable time he could have spent campaigning in some of the other nine states holding contests on Tuesday. He even chose to use his old stomping grounds in west Georgia as a backdrop for a rambling concession speech earlier in the week while his rivals watched voters returns in Michigan.
"I have to win Georgia, I think, to be credible in the race," he told business leaders in Atlanta on Thursday. "But if I win Georgia, the following week, we go to Alabama and Mississippi. I think I'll win most of those. And we have a good opportunity to win in Kansas."
Gingrich is viewed in some circles here with an almost reverential vibe, and supporters at the Statehouse and beyond wear buttons that proclaim "I'm in Newt's Army." Deal, who was elected governor in 2010 and has endorsed Gingrich, said Gingrich need only remind Georgia voters about his history to succeed here.
"People forget that he truly is the architect of the 1994 revolution," said Deal, speaking of the Republican takeover of the House in midterm elections that year after 40 years of Democratic control. "For Republicans, these are issues that are of great importance."
Gingrich has been a force in Georgia politics since he joined the history department at West Georgia College in the 1970s. He ran two unsuccessful congressional campaigns before winning a seat in 1978 to represent a suburban Atlanta district. He held the seat for two decades.
"Even back then, you'd have to say that few of us predicted he would be speaker of the House, but everyone knew back then that Newt was a great talent," said Reed, who hasn't endorsed a candidate. "He was articulate, he was brilliant and he thought outside the box. He saw the possibility of a majority."
When he first took office, Georgia's Republican Party was a shadow of what it is today. There were only about two dozen GOP lawmakers in the Statehouse, which had long been ruled by entrenched Democrats. Gingrich became the standard-bearer of sorts for the state party, traveling far afield of his west Georgia district to strengthen ties with candidates and voters.
"I guess about the only way I can describe him is unlike any politician we had ever encountered," Reed said. "He would come in, speak to your group, keynote the banquet and afterward go to the suite and stay up until the wee hours of the morning talking strategy with you."
A generation of Republican politicians recalls listening to cassette tapes featuring Gingrich's talking points as they drove to campaign stops, and dialing in to weekly national conference calls to hear his advice on how to sell conservative programs back home.
"He changed the whole formula here. Candidates were starving for this information, and he put it together," said Rep. Jack Kingston, who called Gingrich the "Godfather of the Republican Party in Georgia."
"He was out running as a Republican and a reformer and challenging the status quo way back when, long before anyone had given him a shot," said Kingston, who backs Gingrich for the nomination.
Kingston remembers attending a Young Republicans meeting in Savannah where Gingrich urged the group to read a history of Tammany Hall, New York's corrupt 19th century political machine. When one member balked at buying the book, Kingston said Gingrich urged them to focus on the grassroots strategies in its pages.
"Maybe what was different about Newt was many of the Republicans back then were content to stay in the party realm for precinct meetings and party functions, the safer stuff," he said. "Very few would run for elective office. And here he was. Not only did he run but he was successful."
Kingston added: "That was his leadership. He would practice what he preached."
Follow Bluestein on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/bluestein