By Justin Sink
Newt Gingrich mocked his Republican rivals for pulling out of a planned debate in Georgia days before the pivotal Super Tuesday primaries, saying the other candidates were “afraid” to debate him.
“The average Georgian is going to say, the average Ohioan is going to say, ‘Let me get this straight. They won’t come here to debate but they want my vote?’” Gingrich said Friday, according to The Associated Press. “Anybody who’s afraid of debating Newt Gingrich isn’t going to be in very good shape to debate Barack Obama.”
Gingrich was campaigning in Peachtree City, the Atlanta exurb he represented for two decades in Congress. Georgia’s 76 delegates are the most of any Super Tuesday state — or primary contest to date — and the former House Speaker has made the state the lynchpin of his effort to once again regain relevancy in the GOP presidential race.
Mitt Romney’s campaign said he was skipping the race because of scheduling conflicts, noting that an upcoming debate — still scheduled — in Arizona would be the 20th in which Romney participated.
“With eight other states voting on March 6, we will be campaigning in other parts of the country and unable to schedule the CNN Georgia debate,” said Andrea Saul, Romney’s campaign press secretary. “Gov. Romney will be spending a lot of time campaigning in Georgia and Ohio ahead of Super Tuesday.”
But the cancellation of the debate undoubtedly hurts Gingrich the most. He has been at his best in the forums, frequently using strong performances to ignite a surge in the polls or reestablish his campaign narrative. Romney, meanwhile, has generally struggled in the contests.
The Georgia debate was especially crucial to Gingrich. On his home turf, the forum represented his final chance to reassert himself into a race that has become dominated by Romney and Santorum. And, for a campaign that has admitted to financial struggles, the free media opportunity that a debate provides cannot be easily replicated — especially with the geographically diverse Super Tuesday states that are expensive to campaign in.
Gingrich also took time during his speech in Peachtree City to criticize ads from Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super-PAC that has flooded the airwaves in early-voting states with commercials critical of Gingrich and Santorum.
“You can’t hide behind millions of dollars in negative ads and think you’re going to win the presidency,” Gingrich said. “I think there is a declining impact of totally false ads, and I think you’re going to see as Romney applies the same technique at Santorum, a general revulsion against this kind of purely negative campaigning.”
Gingrich’s campaign circulated a letter Friday that had been sent to Georgia television stations, warning them that they could be liable if they aired Restore our Future ads with false claims about Gingrich. The campaign made a similar threat to stations in South Carolina, although they ultimately aired ads to which Gingrich objected.