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ATLANTA — Mitt Romney and wife Ann served up pancakes to supporters here Sunday morning, then the former Masschusetts governor served up a subtle dig at rival Newt Gingrich in his home state, saying Romney won't pander on the issue of gas prices.
"It's critical that the person we nominate is someone who understands the economy, who has credibility when it comes to the economy," Romney told supporters. "Not someone who can just spout the the words that they've read, but someone who's actually lived in the real economy."
Romney's quick stopover in Georgia came two days before the biggest prize so far in what hast turned into a grinding battle for the GOP presidential nomination. The four GOP candidates are competing for 419 delegates on Super Tuesday, the most on any single day of voting. Three delegate-rich states could be pivotal: Gingrich's homestate of Georgia (76 delegates), Ohio (76) and Tennessee (58).
The latest polls, according to the website RealClearPolitics, have Gingrich leading in Georgia and tight races between Santorum and Romney in Ohio and Tennessee.
NBC Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd said the positive trend of winning is just as important as delegates. "I just think it's a momentum thing," Todd said in a recent interview with KSL-TV. "We're in one of those places where momentum is everything."
Romney has won the last three contests between the candidates last week in Michigan, Arizona and Washington.
Gingrich, in a must-win situation, hit the morning talk shows, predicting victory.
"And I keep coming back. I've twice been the front runner in the national polls," said former U.S. House Speaker and Georgia congressman. "I think that with $2.50 gasoline and with an American energy plan designed to give us independence from the Middle East so that no American president will ever again bow to a Saudi king, I think we're coming back again."
Rick Santorum's chances hinge on outperforming Romney in Ohio.
"We are going to do very will there. I believe that," Santorum said on Fox News Sunday. "It is a tough state for us only because of the money disadvantage. But we got a great grassroots campaign. We are hanging in there and we feel very confident that we will do well."
Ron Paul spoke out, in an interview on CNN from Fairbanks, Alaska, about federal disaster assistance, in the wake of the deadly rash of tornados, across several Super Tuesday states. Paul highlighted the need for those living in the central U.S. to have insurance.
"To say that any accident that happens in the country, send in FEMA, send in the money, the government has all this money, it's totally out of control," said Paul. "It's not efficient."
A candidate needs 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination. In perhaps a positive sign for Romney, the former Utah Olympic CEO, the total number of delegates remaining to be awarded is 2,002.
Mitt Romney: 182 Rick Santorum: 79 Newt Gingrich: 39 Ron Paul: 38
Ohio voters unenthusiastic about RomneyEllen Holden said she's supporting her second choice in Ohio's key Super Tuesday Republican primary to help block Mitt Romney's chances of winning the party's nomination.
She voted early for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum as the race has turned into a two-man battle between Romney and Santorum that could be decided in Ohio, where the two candidates are tied in the polls.
Holden, who returned to nursing after the bad economy forced her family to sell an excavation business they'd run for 15 years, said she'd rather have cast her ballot for former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich.
"But I thought my vote would go unnoticed and help Romney," said Holden, who opposes the former Massachusetts governor's state health care plan as well as what she sees as his inability to relate to working-class Americans.
"I don't think he's for the common man. It seems like he's in such an exalted spot," she said, questioning whether Romney can understand the plight of families like hers who have seen their lives changed by the economic downturn.
Her husband, Mike Holden, said he's also backing Santorum for the same reasons and, like his wife, would vote for Romney in November if he becomes the nominee. Romney might be able to help the country, Mike Holden said, "but he just doesn't seem sincere about it."
The Holdens, from the nearby suburb of Delaware, were among thousands of Central Ohio area residents gathered at the state fairgrounds Sunday for a home and garden show that featured lush displays of spring flowers despite the snowy weather outside.
Craig Matt and his wife, also from Delaware, were browsing the latest backyard accessories. He, too, said he already voted for Santorum because he doesn't trust Romney.
"He's just looking out for his fat cats and their tax breaks," Matt said, calling Romney out of touch "even with middle-class people. I'd like to know if he knows what the price of a gallon of milk is."
Matt's wife, Nancy, said the most important issue is coming up with a way to balance the federal budget. "I think it's time to consider raising taxes for the extremely wealthy," she said, something she doesn’t believe Romney would do.
I don't think he's for the common man. It seems like he's in such an exalted spot.
–- Ellen Holden
Brad Rawlins, a car dealer from Blacklick, said he'd vote Tuesday for Santorum but had little good to say about any of the GOP candidates.
"In my opinion, he's the best of the worst," Rawlins said. "None of them are in touch with the people."
Mary Hauler, a stay-at-home mom from Galena, said she still hadn't made up her mind completely but probably would support Romney.
She acknowledged she wasn't very enthusiastic, but said she was willing to vote for Romney because he's the most likely to beat the Democratic candidate, President Barack Obama.
"Honestly, I think he's the most electable," Hauler said of Romney. "I think I might be a little more conservative than he is. I like that he's been in the private sector."
Paul Miller, a retired accountant from Columbus, also was leaning toward Romney for similar reasons.
"He's kind of a mix between moderate and conservative. I think he's got the best chance to beat Obama," Miller said, adding he's not bothered by Romney's personal wealth, estimated at some $250 million.
"Not at all," Miller said. "I'd rather have a rich person who knows what the heck he's doing than some poor person who doesn’t know jack. I don’t blame him at all for being wealthy."
Nancy Vehr of Grove City said she likes both Romney and Santorum. "But Santorum is my guy," she said. "I feel Santorum when he talks, I feel what he's saying, that it's all coming from his heart," she said.
Ohio State University political science professor Paul Beck said the home show crowd appears to reflect the electorate's mood at the moment.
"What you're hearing from people is what the polls have been showing in Ohio and others states, that Santorum does seem to be connecting better," Paul said, particularly with lower- and middle-class voters.
Many Republicans just feel more comfortable with Santorum's strong stands on social issues, Beck said. But he said many of those same voters also realize Romney is more electable.
"That's a dilemma," Beck said, that's led to discouragement with the GOP field.
Santorum may not be viewed as able to win the general election, he said, but Romney is seen "as somebody who has sort of had to go out of character to appeal to the electorate," which doesn't build voter trust.
He's kind of a mix between moderate and conservative. I think he's got the best chance to beat Obama.
–- Paul Miller
Ohio could at least come close to settling the question of which direction the GOP wants to go, Beck said, although he predicted the race will continue at least until April.
"Of all the Super Tuesday states, Ohio is really the one that's up for grabs," Beck said. "It really comes down to Ohio as the one that can be a momentum maker."
Romney won't be in Ohio on election night, instead heading to one of the Super Tuesday states he's all but guaranteed to win, Massachusetts.
"I think it's smart," said Kirk Jowers, a longtime Romney adviser and head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Jowers dismissed the suggestion that being in Boston on election night will connect Romney to Massachusetts' liberal image, especially passage of his state health care plan.
"At this stage, everyone's figured out he's a Massachusetts Mormon," Jowers said, describing the venue selection as "neutral" to most voters.
Beck said Romney may be looking for a place to celebrate that will have a more "upbeat feel" than an election party in Ohio, where the vote is in doubt.
"It could be the kind of thing where nobody shows up," he said. "And that becomes the story."
Joel McElhannon, an Atlanta-based GOP stratigist, called the decision to spend election night in Massachusetts "very peculiar" since the focus of Super Tuesday will be on Ohio.
"I think where a candidate is on election night speaks volumes about where his priorities are," McElhannon said. "It's kind of a big question mark why he would not be there."